A Punch Line's Political Power
When David Litt first heard Barack Obama speak in early January 2008, his future was up in the air—30,000 feet up, to be exact. A senior in college, Litt was on a plane to New York, watching CNN and mulling whether to teach English in China, do comedy in New York or L.A., or pursue some third option he’d never thought of. “I tried to join the CIA,” Litt told Tufts students crowded into the Rabb Room for Tisch College’s Civic Life Lunch on Sept. 18. “It was a false start.”’
Then Obama appeared on the screen, giving a speech to organizers and volunteers who had helped him win the Iowa caucuses. “By the time the plane landed, it was ‘OK, I’m an Obama person, what can I do to help?’ It was like a religious conversion,” said Litt, who went on to the join the campaign, and later became a senior speechwriter for Obama and lead joke writer for four White House Correspondents’ Association dinners, and write a memoir, Thanks Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years (Ecco, 2017).
He learned the craft first as an intern for West Wing Writers, a speechwriting firm, after working on Obama’s 2008 campaign, and then joined the White House as speechwriter for Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor and assistant to the president for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs.
Litt knew what it took to craft a strong speech—starting with the understanding that it’s your boss’s voice and values that matter. “Speechwriters are very much there to serve a principal; they’re not there to do their own thing,” Litt said. “Where good speechwriters can distinguish themselves is in the details they bring and the ways they help tell the story.”
Litt also knew how to be funny, and had even interned for The Onion. “The key to writing a good joke, I have found, is writing a lot of bad jokes,” Litt said. “I’m going to write a lot of dumb jokes that I really hope no one ever sees, but maybe a good one will pop up, one in twenty.”
But employing these skills for the president of the United States was a bit different. “The single most important thing about watching the president tell a joke, is that the president is telling a joke,” Litt said. “If he’s having fun, everyone will enjoy it; if he doesn’t get it, no one will.”
And Obama didn’t always get the jokes Litt brought him every few weeks. Litt recalled one in particular that called for a Valley Girl accent—which he proceeded to demonstrate. “He said, ‘Yeah, that’d be pretty funny . . . if a comedian did it,’” Litt said. “Which was his very firm way of saying, ‘Let’s never talk about this again.’”
That wasn’t to say Obama didn’t appreciate a good joke. Just the opposite, in fact, Litt said, recalling comedian Keegan-Michael Key rehearsing his routine as Obama’s Anger Translator for the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
“Every time he opened his mouth, President Obama just lost it. He couldn’t keep a straight face,” Litt said.
He described his boss’s humor as “pretty dry, very self-aware,” best observed in his appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. “His sense of timing is very, very good. I would write a pretty good joke, and he would make it sound really good,” Litt said. “He displayed an appreciation for absurdity that we don’t often see in politics.”
Litt remembered one joke he wrote during the 2012 campaign, when Mitt Romney was getting flak for driving his car with his dog in a carrier on the roof. A counter-narrative was circulating about Obama having tried dog meat, and Sarah Palin, who often compared hockey moms to pit bulls, had just re-entered politics.
The joke ended, “The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is, a pit bull is delicious!” Litt almost thought better of pitching the joke, but threw caution to the wind and went for it. There was a moment of silence. “And then he just cracked up,” Litt said. Obama not only delivered the joke, but added a twist involving soy sauce. “I could tell if he really liked a joke because he would add something to it, some gesture that claimed ownership,” Litt said.
Overall, Obama’s approach to joking reflected his strengths as a person and president, Litt said. “He’s someone who understands the role he plays and how he’s perceived, but is also capable of living in the moment and acting naturally,” Litt said. “To have both is rare for a politician.”
Obama used this power strategically, appearing on Zach Galifianakis’s show Between Two Ferns against Litt’s advice to promote the new health-care website. The episode got more hits in twenty-four hours than the YouTube video of a speech Litt wrote about health care ever got.
“When it comes to reaching an audience, comedy can do things other modes of communications can’t. Humor is extremely good at getting you to pay attention. And getting people’s attention, you can turn it to something worthy,” Litt said. “Sometimes the logic of a joke, if it’s good, can be so unassailable that it gets away from the traditional back and forth of politics. Sometimes jokes . . . can help move debates forward and help reach smart conclusions.”
How about jokes like Donald Trump retweeting GIFs of himself hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball? “Is that comedy? I don’t know. I think it’s comedy in the sense that giving someone a wedgie is comedy,” he said. He also called the current president out on his tendency to say, “Just joking.” “I think if a president says it, they’re never really just joking,” Litt said. “Everything a president says carries weight and can make other countries make very quick decisions.”
As a former entertainer, Trump does have a strong sense of audience, he said. Litt imagined Trump thinking “This is something where if I say it, everyone in the room will love it”—“but part of being president is, what about everyone in America? What about everyone in the entire world?” Litt asked. Trump plays to the crowd in front of him, but ignores those who aren’t there, he said—and when he reads his speeches, it’s often clear he doesn’t know or care what he’s saying. “That’s dangerous in a president: thoughtlessness,” Litt said.
Now head writer/producer for Funny or Die’s Washington, D.C. office, Litt regrets his decision to leave the White House before Obama left office. “I felt I put in my time, I’ll be on the margins, and someone else will take care of it. I wish I hadn’t had that attitude,” he said. “We all have some responsibility and role we can play.”
Litt is thinking about how to return to politics, and he urged Tufts students to do the same. “Think about the talents and skills you have and how to make them work for something bigger than you,” he said. “Pick a campaign and a candidate you really believe in and go work for them. You will learn a lot and get a chance to be part of something big, whether or not the candidate you picked wins,” he said.
For prospective speechwriters, he invited them to seek an alignment of values. “More than personality, what matters is, do you believe in what this person is trying to do? And are you inspired and motivated by the way they describe what they’re trying to do?”
Ultimately, Litt told students, “If you care about America, you are being called to do something in this moment.” He shared a realization that struck him as he worked in the White House. “Part of growing up is having a moment where you realize there are no grownups,” he said. “There are just people who are hopefully doing their best—and it becomes your job to do your best as well.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.