“He was really up for it. He kind of figured out what was funny about him,” said David Litt, a speechwriter who helped guide the video crew on the Biden shooting through the Oval Office. .
“He’s a president who used the phrase ‘No joke, people’ more than he told real jokes,” said Jeff Nussbaum, who until this week worked as a speechwriter at the White House and was involved in preparing humorous speeches. for Biden. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing in tough times. It’s just that President Biden is a serious person facing serious challenges.”
Biden’s speech has been in the works for a few weeks, officials said, and was not finished Friday. But early in the writing process, the president told his team that he envisioned a speech that went beyond a mere amalgamation of single sentences, jokes and gags.
Yes, there will be jokes — about himself, the media, and Republicans — that Biden is refining from a list of dozens submitted by his wide orbit of advisers. But he also intends to use the appearance to make a strong statement about his belief in a free press after his predecessor – who skipped the annual dinner – called journalists “enemies of the people”.
“Think about what the American press has done,” Biden said this week in a speech on Ukraine, mentioning the upcoming dinner as a time to celebrate journalists. “The courage it took to stay in those war zones. … I can’t tell you how much respect I have, watching them in those areas, under fire, risking their lives, to make sure let the world get the truth.”
“He’s made the decision that he wants to attend, safely, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to show his support, to show his support for the free press,” press secretary Jen Psaki said this week. “This stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, who not only questioned the legitimacy of the press almost daily, but also never attended dinner.”
A tough time for jokes in front of a tough crowd
Like any comedian, Biden has weighed his audience and the current environment as he determines what to say.
It’s not the easiest time for a topical stand-up, officials acknowledge. There is nothing funny about the war in Ukraine or its atrocities. And while the Covid pandemic and its countless life interruptions have provided plenty of food for comedians, its death toll and economic ripples aren’t something everyone can laugh at.
“It’s a challenge to the people writing this speech that there are so many serious problems in the world. At the same time, I think it’s important for the president to do that. President Trump hasn’t never showed up to that dinner because he could. I can’t stand the thought of being laughed at and they don’t know he would have done very well,” said Litt, who led a drafting process for President Barack Obama’s annual comedy speeches at the Correspondents’ Dinner.
“That a president should stand up and be able to poke fun at himself, usually tell jokes, talk about the press and maybe poke fun at the press a bit, but also talk about the role of the free press – these are not small things, these are big things.”
But he remains determined to be there, Psaki said this week, to demonstrate his support for a free press. Before the big night, Biden should do some rehearsals of his speech to get a feel for the delivery and timing, a person familiar with the matter said.
“Comedy requires a pacing and timing that might not be as natural in the context of a normal speech he gave 1,000 times as a politician,” said Matt Teper, who worked as a speechwriter. for Biden when he was vice president. “He has a natural sense of humor, and he cared enough about it to make sure it was done in an almost professional and polished way by telling jokes.”
Collapsing at a dinner for Washington insiders is not one of Biden’s main concerns in these dire times. Yet delivering a speech that elicits just the right amount of laughs and needles is not a task the president or his team take lightly.
“I don’t envy him for having to deliver it. I don’t envy the people who write it around him and the people who even write the jokes with it? All that pressure is on every word,” he said. Teper said.
Washington Funny, Actual Funny, and What a President Can Say
A White House official said Biden’s top speechwriter, Vinay Reddy, and his senior adviser, Mike Donilon, were preparing the president’s remarks. They work from “a wide range of jokes from a wide range of internal and external people,” the official said, following a well-established routine for writing presidential comedies.
When he was president, Obama called on comedy writers from Los Angeles and New York to feed his speechwriting team with the annual dinner speeches from correspondents – including producer Judd Apatow and the writers of “The Daily Show” and “30 Rock”.
Biden, when he was vice president, also sought outside help for the comedic speeches he gave at the annual Gridiron dinner and in other light-hearted settings.
Among those Biden turned to was Jon Macks, one of the top writers of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” who also wrote hosting material for dozens of Oscar ceremonies, as well as a extensive constellation of knowledge. A person involved in the process when Biden was vice president recalled a submission from Seth Meyers, then editor of “Saturday Night Live.”
The trick, according to those involved in the process for Obama and Biden, was to whittle down a list of hundreds of jokes into a cohesive speech that sounded natural coming out of the president’s mouth. Jokes that could have killed on a late-night show or in a comedy club might seem stilted or contrived coming from a president.
Crude humor, even when delivered artfully, is usually under the desk – as Obama’s writers discovered when he rejected a gag alluding to the size of his penis, although he laughed a lot. And insults about physical appearance are generally prohibited in official Washington.
“The challenge with this speech for a president is always finding that little area of overlap between Washington Funny and Actual Funny,” said Nussbaum, who also worked on some of Obama’s correspondents’ dinner speeches. “There’s a circle that’s Washington Funny, there’s a circle that’s Actual Funny, and then there’s a third circle, who can a president say?
He added: “A comedian can joke about Covid, a comedian can joke about Putin and Ukraine. A president really can’t.”
Potentially easiest for Biden is the understated style he’s used in the past, including in his video appearances at past correspondents’ dinners. Yet even that carries potential risk.
“President Biden has a challenge because self-mockery about his age or his acuity risks confirming the, say malarkey, that his political opponents are trying to push,” Nussbaum said.
Looking for Politically Appropriate Humor in 2022
For nearly a century, presidents have attended the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, described in 1922 as “an occasion of much merriment and enthusiasm.” According to a dinner attendee a year earlier, the evening provided “pleasure like the Prohibition era provided”.
When Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend dinner in 1924, he delivered no comedic routine. This tradition only came later, when presidents discovered that comedy offered them the opportunity to speak obliquely about things they would otherwise have avoided.
“One of the ways these speeches have worked historically is that you can talk about things without talking about them. Humor gives you the ability to shift the onus onto the audience to find the joke,” said communications professor Don Waisanen. . at Baruch College, City University of New York, which studied the dinner speeches of White House correspondents dating back to Coolidge.
President Bill Clinton used the technique in 1999 when he made a sly reference to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, alluding to “events of the last year” without actually discussing his impeachment proceedings. .
Less successful was President George W. Bush’s comedic slideshow on the search for weapons of mass destruction at the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner – a gag that fell flat and led to accusations that he had crossed a line.
Speechwriters and Biden aides are working to make sure that doesn’t happen this year. And Biden himself has told some members of his team that some jokes either don’t work, go overboard, or don’t really sound like him.
But in a hyper-polarized political environment — arguably much uglier than 2016, the last time a president gave a speech at the Correspondents’ Dinner — whether Biden can say something truly, universally funny remains an open question. .
“Actually, I think the most interesting thing about what’s going to happen here is that this speech is going to be a real test for what comedy is in the United States in 2022,” Waisanen said. “It used to be about: let’s find some humanity here, let’s find the light souls. In 2022, things are so partisan and so tribal, is there anything beyond the most partisan humor sharp ?”