Lewinsky, bongs and other taboo presidential jokes


President Barack Obama ackowledges late-night television host and comedian Conan O'Brien during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Saturday, April 27, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

First aired on Day 6 (27/04/13)

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The annual White House Correspondents' Dinner is generally known as an annual light spot in the American political calendar. It's a chance for the POTUS (President of the United States) to show his funny side, his ability to laugh at himself, and his ability to give as good as he gets. But last weekend's dinner came fresh on the heels of the tragedy in Boston, leading some people to ask if this is really the time for the President to be trying out his stand-up routine.

Mark Katz knows something about delicate timing. He worked as President Clinton's joke writer for both of his terms, and in 1995 the White House Correspondents' Dinner was scheduled just 10 days after the devastating Oklahoma City bombing. Katz details his experiences with Clinton in his memoir Clinton and Me, and he spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about how Clinton approached that 1995 dinner.

Clinton side-stepped the expected light-hearted remarks that evening. He addressed the press corps with a serious but affectionate speech about the role they play during difficult times, and he made reference to the funny speech he had hoped to give instead. Katz wrote that abandoned funny speech, but agrees that Clinton did the right thing by taking a more serious tack. "It was the right choice," he said. "Humour was not the right answer for that night and he was right to...give the pitch-perfect healing speech that he gave."

Writing jokes for presidents is a politically sensitive operation. "There are maybe four people in the White House with the comedic skills to write a joke, but there are 100 people in the White House who have the authority to kill a joke," said Katz. "So that is the challenge."

The other challenge is working around verboten material. In Katz's case, for Clinton, Monica Lewinsky jokes were no-go. "You are talking to the only joke-writer since the joke-writer for Andrew Johnson, the 19th president, who was impeached, to ever have to write a joke about impeachment," said Katz. "Ultimately, the rule we arrived at was that we could do jokes about the smoke, but not the fire. We could do jokes about the hoopla of the media circus of impeachment, but nothing about the specific indiscretions that brought us to the brink of constitutional crisis."

So jokes included lines like "Here's a speech my lawyers wrote for me," and "Knock knock -- don't answer that!" But did Clinton himself ever kill one of Katz's jokes? "I can tell you he did not appreciate the McDonald's jokes that were popular circa 1994 and 1995," Katz said. "He told me many times he'd only been to McDonald's once, and he ordered a salad. But in many ways, those jokes helped him. They humanized him...but he didn't like them."

Katz also wrote for former vice president (and later presidential candidate) Al Gore. "Al Gore had a unique ability [to] see a joke and say 'that's a good joke for Al Gore,'" he said. "And we actually did a series of jokes where he retold his favourite Al Gore jokes. 'Al Gore is so boring his Secret Service code name is Al Gore,' [and] 'Al Gore is an inspiration to the millions of Americans who suffer from Dutch Elm's Disease'...he loved them and told them well and was fearless."

Still, even with Gore, there were some lines that couldn't be crossed. "When he was gearing up to run for president against George W. Bush, it was revealed that Gore got bad grades his freshman year of college at Harvard," said Katz. "And the joke I wrote in response to that was 'It's true, I got Cs and Ds my first year at Harvard, but in my defence, that was also the year that I invented the bong.'"

But Gore (perhaps wisely) wasn't comfortable joking about his college drug use. "Politicians inherently know that the right joke will make the rounds for a week, and the wrong joke will be quoted in their obituary."

Below, we've rounded up a few clips of bygone presidents cracking wise.

JFK responds snarkily to questions from the press:

Ronald Reagan makes fun of Soviet Russia in 1988:

And finally, Bill Clinton completely loses it at a press conference with Boris Yeltsin in 1995 (we'll be honest and admit we're not sure what's going on here, but it's kind of great):