Truth in Comedy: How to Make a Politician Funny

Speech writer Mark Katz gives the low-down on bringing laughs to politics

By: Carolyn Kriss

Speechwriter Mark Katz specializes in crisis control through comedy. The veteran of Bill Clinton’s eight “Silly Seasons”—the period in spring during which the President delivers several humorous addresses at black tie press dinners—and the author of Clinton and Me, Katz continues to consult politicians, movie stars, and other members of the elite on how to deliver laughs when times are tough.

Forged in the crucible of Clinton controversies, Katz believes in comedy as a forum for sticky issues. “There are ways to touch a white-hot, nuclear topic with your pinkie, get credit for acknowledging that the topic exists, and do nothing more than acknowledging that it exists, and yet you have ‘taken it on.’”

He speaks from experience. Katz describes the Clinton era as “a sine curve of accomplishment and crisis, and the White House correspondents dinner always seemed to come at a moment of crisis.”

Katz walks a fine line with his clients, and, when asked who needs to punch up their acts for the 2008 presidential race, he responded, “It’s a risk/reward ratio for everyone, and everyone has to assess the risk, and everyone has to assess the reward. You know, you see Chris Dodd, who I wrote a speech for in 1997 and have great personal affection for [...] on Imus three times a week. He’s not in the front tier, and he can take more risks and speak his mind. He has more freedom. With Senator [Hillary] Clinton, playing it safe ultimately may be the most dangerous thing she can do.”

For more thoughts on Katz, from the role of humor in politics to his own journey as a speechwriter, check out the full interview we had with the humorist at his New York-based one-man think tank, The Sound Bite Institute.