President Obama has often used comedy to connect with the nation throughout his terms in office–perhaps more than any other President to date. Of course, President Obama doesn’t come up with all these zingers on his own, he has a team of speechwriters who craft jokes for his speeches.
Let’s look at the Affordable Care Act as one example. In this speech from September 2013, early in the rollout, I count 26 annotations of laughter in the transcript. I also count four instances of boos, an expression of ridicule that was directed at the opposition.
One of his former speechwriters, David Litt, commented on the President’s use of humor to get the word out on the Affordable Care Act in his New York Times Op-Ed. He said, “By March 2014, the health care exchanges were finally working, but most young people didn’t seem to know that. Not enough of them were signing up. One solution, at least in part, was for President Obama to plug the site on the comedian Zach Galifianakis’s online talk show Between Two Ferns. The commander in chief sat between two ferns and listened as the comedian asked him, “What’s it like to be the last black president?” before they got around to talking health care….The day the “Ferns” video appeared online it was viewed by 11 million people, and traffic to HealthCare.gov spiked 40 percent. Of course that video isn’t the only reason the administration can now report that 20 million people are enrolled in insurance through the Affordable Care Act. But it certainly helped get the word out.”
Even during more serious speeches, jokes are strategically woven in to connect better with the American public. Jon Lovett, one of Obama’s speech writers says, ”I think we find...jokes have a use and even in a serious speech, but they're always risky and it's so hard to explain why it's worth the risk, right? Why's it worth having a joke jammed in the middle of a serious remark about the economy or something? Well actually, if it works, people hear about it, people will talk about it. And then well, OK, well that's what we're trying to do anyway. It's a difficult thing to say well, even though you don't need it and even though the speech will be fine without it, we think it's worth saying something funny in the hopes that it resonates with people.”
Every year when I watch The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I think about what it must be like to write jokes for the President. President Obama is a natural comedian, and this is an occasion where it’s safe to make the year’s jabs both at himself and others. But, how does his speechwriting team determine what is appropriate for the President to make a joke about?
From a scientific perspective it’s worth looking at the Benign Violation Theory. It suggests that jokes have to fall within a certain threshold of violating your beliefs to make you laugh. If the joke is too safe or too edgy then no one laughs. This margin of error is heightened for the President who is the voice of the people after all and a gaf will be heard around the world—this isn’t some basement comedy club.
To provide some insight I’ve gathered some thoughts about the joke writing process from his speechwriters. And you can catch them all on their fantastic new political podcast, Pod Save America.
David Litt: There are some topics no president, even a genuinely funny one, can joke about. National security is off limits. So are all but the gentlest mentions of the first family...Part of the joke when the President is telling a joke, is that the President is telling a joke, and I think he understands that, too. He understands what makes him funny. You're looking for jokes that make more sense for the President to tell than for a comedian to tell.
Jon Favreau: I mean, I think the first thing we're always looking for is making sure there's a joke for every topic that you have to hit, right? So this year, we know we want to have Trump jokes, we know we need a Hillary joke, a Biden joke, a republican joke, a Merrick Garland joke. I mean, there are certain topical things in the news that you want to make sure for each one of those categories, you have a joke for. So when everyone sends in jokes, we start putting them into categories by topic and then see where we're thin and where we have too many, that's sort of the first thing.
Jon Lovett: We're starting with the topics and trying to find as many jokes as we can for all of those topics. But I think for the beginning, it's always a search for a line that's kind of confident and pithy and that makes a joke that kind of says like, "Hey, this is what this year has been about or this is what this moment's about." Like this year, he said the thing about this being his last and perhaps, the White House Correspondents' Dinner. I think that's really like, "Oh, that's right," you know, all that stuff is going on.
More than ever, it seems like humor is essential to get people’s attention. David Litt closed out his Op-Ed with this thought, “But I do think that presidential comedy has played a role in this chapter in American history. The bully pulpit has splintered. It’s become harder than ever to get people’s attention. And the White House has recognized what class clowns have known all along. Being funny helps.”
It seems unlikely that President Trump will have President Obama’s natural comedic talent or a command of what is within the bounds of the Benign Violation Theory for the American public. Who can forget his attempt at a humorous speech at the Al Smith Charity Dinner prior to his election. The boos were directed at him.