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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jones

Bill Clintons secret (funny) weapon.

One Christmas, maybe the one we spent in Seattle, my sister and I watched back to back to back White House Correspondant dinners. They were playing all of Clinton’s speeches and I was shocked that the man had great comic timing and was willing to be the butt of the joke. He cut through the tension and the issues and made this group of journalists laugh.

I never considered that there was an official white house joke writer. Of course there is, but why would I consider it? Clinton’s joke writer was Mark Katz and he has recently published a book that chronicles his time in the White House. Clinton and Me was published by Miramax books and is (of course) available at amazon and other book stores. Below is an excerpt from the book.

Sidebar: WHITE HOUSE OPERATOR

When brainstorming humor speeches, every sentence in every article I read enters my brain as an impulse stimulus, a potential setup line that dares my gray matter to spit back a punch line. Late one night as I was cramming jokes for Clinton’s first White House Correspondents Dinner, I came across an article about the hundred day accomplishments of previous presidents, wherein it was mentioned parenthetically that America’s ninth president, William Henry Harrison, died on his thirty-second day in office. With a little subtraction, and the addition of context, a joke for Clinton’s upcoming speech was born: “I’m not doing so bad. I mean, at this point in his administration, William Henry Harrison had been dead for sixty-eight days!”

The Monday following the speech, sometime before noon, I was still damp from a late-morning shower when the telephone rang.

Hello?” “White House operator calling for Mark Katz.” “This is Mark Katz.” “Please hold for the president of the United States . . .”

Fisher. It had to be Fisher. Dating back to our days together in junior high, my friend Fisher occasionally subjected me to his expertly executed telephone hoaxes. With a tidbit of information and plausible impersonation, he had played me for the fool a hundred times before. That is why as I stood there in my bath towel, I was not predisposed to believe that I was actually holding for the president of the United States. I pressed the phone to my ear and prepared to analyze the voice that would greet me after my stay on hold. My brain was on high alert.

“Hello, Mark?” BRAIN.- Not enough syllables to make a conclusive identification. Proceed with EXTREME caution!!! “Hello.” “Mark, you did great work helping out on the jokes for the White House Correspondents Dinner. You did a terrific job and I just wanted to call and thank you again.” BRAIN: Holy shit! If this is Fisher, it’s his best work yet. WARNING: The next words you say may be used to mock you for the rest of your life. “You bet, sir.”

I was determined to maintain my reticence until I achieved a higher degree of certainty. My silence compelled the caller to move the conversation forward. “I really loved that William Henry Harrison joke. That one still cracks me up. . . . already been dead for sixty-eight days! Ha!” BRAIN. Identity confirmed! This is the third time the president has mentioned that he loved the William Henry Harrison joke. YOU ARE TALKING TO THE PRESIDENT! REPEAT: YOU ARE TALKING TO THE PRESIDENT!!! Now I was excited. “You got a great laugh on that one, Mr. President.” It was the first time in the conversation I dared address him with that, but there were plenty more to come.

This, I would learn, is a common phenomenon among people who find themselves in a conversation with a president. They interject the words “Mr. President” into nearly every sentence, as if afflicted with a very proper strain of Tourette’s syndrome. There is just something about talking to the president that makes you punctuate your sentences with the words “Mr. President.” Not because he wants to hear it-he knows very well who he is–but because you just love to hear yourself say it. After all, when is the next time you’ll get to say “Mr. President” in a sentence? A co-op board meeting? More than that, interjecting those words adds import to any sentence you might say. Compare these sentences: A. Cheese sandwiches are very tasty. B. Cheese sandwiches are very tasty, Mr. President.

This condition is only made worse by the fact that speaking to the president can also make you talkative to the point of babbling. This happens for much the same reason: you are not really talking to the president, you are listening to yourself talking to the president. Your brain, so absorbed in listening to the conversation, becomes a cognitive bystander engaged in an internal monologue that goes something like this: I am talking to the president. I am talking to the president. I just said something to the president. The president is responding to something I just said.

For the rest of my life, I will be able to preface what I just said to the president with the words, ‘ As I once said to the president …’ ” Does anyone here remember what I said to the president? I’m gonna need it for when I tell people this story. The president stopped talking. It is my turn to say something. Now I am going to listen to what I am about to say to the president. I wonder what it will be? As it turned out, here’s what I said to the president next: “You know what Mel Brooks says, Mr. President: ‘Comedy equals tragedy plus time.'” He had no response to that. Very few people quote Mel Brooks to the president. I explained further. “What I mean, Mr. President, is that joke probably would not have gone over too well if Millard Fillmore said it.” “Millard Fillmore completed the term of Zachary Taylor,” he said. “John Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison. But I think I know what you mean . . .” He’d given me more credit for my wrong reference than I deserved. I didn’t know that Millard Fillmore had completed the term of anyone–I had just pulled out the name of a funny-sounding, obscure, mid-nineteenth century president. At this point, he must have remembered that he had called to thank me, not to administer a pop quiz. “Anyway, I just loved that William Henry Harrison joke.”

The president’s tone let me know that this conversation was winding down. He encouraged me to fax him jokes if ever I had an idea for something funny he might say. A few seconds later, he was saying good-bye. Before it was over, I got to hear myself say it one last time:

“Thank you for calling, Mr. President.”

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