Indeed, when Bill Clinton assumed the presidency in 1993, Katz was hired to be the official White House joke writer. Four times a year Katz was called to the Oval Office to work with President Clinton in writing a humorous speech. These speeches were delivered at the Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinners and the White House Correspondents’ Dinners.
When asked about deflecting negative presidential humor in the media, Katz offers this: “The first rule of political humor is self deprecation. The second rule is repeat as necessary.” Katz believes that Clinton remained popular and successfully deflected much criticism throughout his eventful presidency because he could strategically balance moments of self deprecation with moments where he advanced his message.
After Clinton left office, Katz wrote Clinton & Me: A Real Life Political Comedy. “This wouldn’t have been so funny if I’d set out to write about James K. Polk and me,” Katz jokes. Katz’s favorite story in the book, however, deals with a very serious time in Clinton’s presidency. Just days after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the president was scheduled to deliver one of his humor speeches at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Upon arriving at the White House, Katz learned that due to the circumstances Clinton would not be delivering a humorous speech. As he returned dejectedly to a desk he claimed during his visits to the White House, Katz received a call asking him to go to the Oval Office immediately. Clinton asked if he could still read the speech Katz had submitted before the Oklahoma City bombing — for an audience of one. “What greater pleasure could an emotionally needy joke writer know than to be pitied by the most powerful man on earth?” Katz says. “This guy felt my pain and I was happy to let him heal me.”
Katz sees no problem with politicians using comedic outlets both to get out their message and to let the public see their human side. Was it wise, for example, for Al Sharpton to appear on Saturday Night Live as he was campaigning for the Democratic Party ticket? “I think it’s great any time they break out of the box,” Katz argues.
When asked if he has any tips for the Democratic candidate who will be running against President Bush in the fall, Katz reiterates the balanced formula that served Clinton so well. A mixture of seriousness and funniness will go a long way. Katz concludes, “Don’t be afraid of owning up to your flaws and people will like you for it. Humor is a great way to express that.”