The following is an excerpt from chapter six of David Litt’s new memoir, Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years, out now. Read our interview with Litt here.
When I worked at the White House, people often asked me if I used jokes to advance the president’s agenda. I always said no, by which I always meant yes. That’s not to say each punch line was poll tested. I simply felt that if the leader of the free world was required to host a comedy night, it ought to be worth his time.
Under Jon Lovett’s supervision the previous year, POTUS’s assault on Trump had more than met this standard. The conventional wisdom, which I wholeheartedly subscribed to, was that Obama had “destroyed” the birther king. He had “demolished” him. But in late 2011, Lovett moved to Hollywood to write sitcoms. I became, by default, the White House’s token funny person. As I prepared to run the joke-writing process for the first time, destroying and demolishing Romney seemed like obvious goals.
This was easier said than done. Back in 2011, Trump was the rare breed of public figure loathed by Democrats and Republicans alike. Romney was different. He had friends. Step even an inch over the line, and they would complain to reporters, who would milk the ensuing controversy for days.
With a frontal assault out of the question, the best we could hope for was a series of bank shots. By laughing at his own expense, POTUS could appear both confident and humble. By injecting arguments directly into setups and punch lines, he could bypass the media back-and-forth. Perhaps most im- portant, by joking about controversy, he could diffuse it. If the
president’s willing to laugh at something, how bad can it really be?
By the time I began writing jokes, three weeks before the dinner, there was plenty of controversy to diffuse. In March, a hot mic caught POTUS telling Russian president Dmitry Medvedev he’d have “flexibility” after the election. Policy-wise, this was reasonable. Stripped from context, with the frisson of excitement that comes from eavesdropping on world leaders, it looked bad.
So did the debacle unfolding at the Government Services Administration. The agency’s sole purpose was to spend taxpayer money wisely. Yet it had recently shelled out more than eight hundred thousand dollars for a Las Vegas conference featuring a mind reader and a clown. And GSA staff weren’t the only federal employees whose entertainment choices had gotten them in trouble. On a recent trip to Colombia, several Secret Service agents had been caught soliciting prostitutes when one of them skipped out on the bill.
Then there were the scandals involving dogs. I know that sounds absurd. It is absurd. But the fact remains: in April 2012, two canine controversies were major political news.
The first dated back to 1983, when a young Mitt Romney drove his family to a vacation home in Canada. This was unremarkable. What was remarkable is that, the car overstuffed with bags and children, he had transported his family’s Irish setter in a carrier strapped to the roof. Hoping to contain the fallout, Romneyites dug up a scandalous story of their own. In his autobiography Obama admitted that, as a six-year-old in Indonesia, he had eaten dog meat.
The whole thing was stupid. Neither anecdote said much about the president each man would make. Yet political commentators couldn’t get enough of these stories. Was it worse to mistreat a dog as an adult or ingest one as a child? In 2012, somewhat astonishingly, plenty of political reporters felt this question was worthy of their time. And it was my mission to leave no controversy, real or nonsensical, unaddressed.
To that end, I compiled a long list of topics and sent them out to what amounted to our writers’ room. David Axelrod and Jon Lovett sent in jokes from the growing Obama diaspora. Other one-liners came from Jeff Nussbaum and his West Wing Writers team. More than a half dozen contributors came from entertainment rather than politics. Nell Scovell created Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Kevin Bleyer was a producer on The Daily Show. Nina Pedrad wrote for 30 Rock and New Girl. Judd Apatow was (and is) the leading comedy mogul of his generation, behind everything from Girls to Knocked Up to Freaks and Geeks.
Perhaps our friends in Hollywood knew how to crank out an endless series of amazing jokes. I certainly didn’t. For me, the secret to writing one funny line was to write about twenty-five awful ones first. Most evenings I would comb through the day’s rubble and sigh. But after picking the diamonds from the rough, and combining them with material coming from outside the building, a monologue began to take shape.
A few days before the dinner, Favs and I went to the Oval to present about forty of our favorite lines. Together with David Plouffe, the president’s senior advisor, and Jay Carney, the press secretary, we sat on the couches while POTUS read out loud. Each time he laughed, I made a mental note. Each time he didn’t, I had a mental breakdown.
Then he reached my first dog joke and my heart stopped beating entirely. It relied on an obscure reference to one of Sarah Palin’s lines from the 2008 campaign. It also involved eating man’s best friend. As POTUS read off the page, I wondered if we hadn’t made a mistake putting it before him.
“Sarah Palin’s getting back in the game, guest hosting on the Today show. Which reminds me of an old saying: What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?”
He paused, just slightly. “A pit bull is delicious.”
We all fell silent. Was POTUS confused? Was he disgusted?
Then, to my enormous relief, he grinned.
“That’s pretty good,” he said, chuckling. “A pit bull is delicious. I like that.” He smiled again, mulling things over. “I’m just letting you know, I might add something here. ‘Maybe a little soy sauce.’ Something like that.” He made a shaking gesture with his hand, sprinkling imaginary seasoning onto his canine meal.
As my heart resumed beating, President Obama finished reading the jokes, culling about a dozen or so from our list. Then he ushered us out of the Oval, shaking his head in mock disbelief. As I left the room, I heard him chuckle. When he spoke, it was with the same officious tone he used when acknowledging a congressman in the crowd.
“A pit bull,” he proclaimed, “is delicious.”
The day before the dinner, we gathered in the Cabinet Room to record a short audio piece making fun of the hot mic with the Russian president. POTUS sat near the door to the Outer Oval, directly beneath a portrait of Harry Truman. I sat next to him, cast as “White House Aide.”
I had only one line: Mr. President, they’re ready for you. But
with Barack Obama sitting to my right, I felt the tightness in my chest that had ruined my high school dreams of stardom.
“Mr. President they’re! Ready FOR you.”
Ignoring my botched delivery, POTUS recorded his lines.
“I’m the president of the United States, and I’m opening for Jimmy Kimmel?”
“Right now I’m like a five on the Just for Men scale. I think I could go to six and nobody would notice.”
“I could really use a cigarette.”
POTUS was a better actor than I was. Still, his timing was off. He emphasized some of the wrong words. He paused in awkward places. We were allotted only ten minutes, enough for just two recordings, and I began to wonder what would happen if his delivery didn’t improve.
I certainly wasn’t helping. As we began our second and final take, I flubbed my line even worse than before.
“MR. PRESIDENTthey’rereadyfor … you?”
This made what happened next all the more remarkable. I hadn’t taken my eyes off President Obama. I knew for a fact he had not practiced. And yet the difference between his first and second read-throughs was the difference between a guy puffing through kickboxing class and Jean-Claude Van Damme. He took beats at just the right moments. He hit the precise words to sell each punch line best. His tone was the perfect blend of annoyance and self-regard. It was as if he’d spent a full day rehearsing. It was that much better.
I’d often heard senior staff describe President Obama as the smartest guy in the room, but only now did I realize what they meant. He didn’t speak seven languages or know the Latin names of species or multiply large numbers in his head. What he did, more quickly than anyone, was strip away complicated issues to their essence and make the most of the information obtained. No one was better at getting to the point.
Jon Lovett returned from Los Angeles for the dinner that year, and on the morning of April 29, he, Favs, and I did one final run-through in the Oval. By now the script was nearly final. In fact, we had only one new line to run by President Obama. During a recent speech, Vice President Biden had remarked that POTUS had a “big stick.” He was referring to foreign policy, but his hand gesture was, to put it mildly, undiplomatic. Jeff Nussbaum pounced.
“Let’s just put it this way,” read his joke. “Dreams aren’t the only thing I got from my father.”
POTUS laughed so loudly that I secretly hoped he would add the line to the script. But this was an election year; a presidential dick joke was a bridge too far. And so, with nothing more to add, we were finished. Favs and Lovett went to a fancy brunch party. POTUS went to play golf. I went home to nap.
I attended that year’s Correspondents’ Dinner as a guest of the Agence France-Presse. It’s a wonderful organization, but they’re hardly the cool kids of the media world. Where the Time and Bloomberg tables overflowed with celebrities, the seat to my right was occupied by a well-regarded Irish novelist. His face seemed sculpted from putty. His eyes glittered beneath thick black brows. He was not exactly a movie star.
In fairness, however, I was not exactly a Washington insider. Perhaps that’s why we made quite a team. As we passed around the basket of rolls, my novelist explained his theory of Hamlet. I nodded, genuinely absorbed. Even better, by the time the salad course was finished, he was on his fourth glass of wine and his stage whisper had become a full-throated scream. At one point during the evening, Jake Tapper, then a reporter with ABC News, stood to receive a prize from the Correspondents’ Association. My tablemate snorted.
“Really?” he shouted. “Now they’re givin’ feckin’ awards to their feckin’ selves?”
The wine continued disappearing, and by the time President Obama took the stage, I had a one-man cheering section. After the audio making fun of his hot mic moment, POTUS began with a joke about the bin Laden raid.
“Last year at this time—in fact, on this very weekend—we finally delivered justice to one of the world’s most notorious individuals.” The giant screens on either side of the podium displayed a picture of a sneering Donald Trump.
“Did you write that?” my novelist mouthed. When I nodded, he gave me two enthusiastic thumbs-up.
My mouth was dry. I clutched my chair nervously. But even in my deer-in-headlights state, it was amazing how quickly three weeks of work flew by. Before I knew it, the president was delivering his line about eating pit bulls, adding imaginary soy sauce as promised. We played a short video from a SuperPAC called Dogs for Romney, defending the right of canines everywhere to ride on the roof. For the last line of the night, the president returned to damage control.
“I had a lot more material prepared, but I have to get the Secret Service home in time for their new curfew.”
Just like that, it was over. POTUS sat down, Jimmy Kimmel told fifteen minutes of jokes, and the entire Hilton ballroom began streaming out the door. I was trying to make sense of it all when I saw someone from the corner of my eye.
“Oh my gosh. That’s Diane Keaton!” I don’t usually gape at celebrities, but this was one of my all-time favorite actresses. And now she was headed in our direction, dressed in a bowler hat, jacket, and tie.
My cheering section didn’t waste an instant. “Let’s introduce ourselves!” My novelist took off in pursuit like a cheetah in a nature documentary, only drunk. Diane Keaton saw him coming. She tried to flee. But it was hopeless. Bottlenecking her between two tables, my new friend pounced, cheerfully putting an arm around the actress’s waist. “Look at what I bought at the train station!” he shouted, as though this were an acceptable form of greeting. Then he reached into his pants pocket and produced a cardboard disposable camera. It was the kind I remembered from summer camp, the kind where you advance the film by rotating a plastic wheel.
“Don’t we want to see if it works?” my novelist asked. “No, that’s okay,” said Diane Keaton.
“Come on, we have to test it. It’ll be fun!” “Well, really, I …”
“All right then.” He grabbed me by the arm, pulled me close, and took a decidedly old-fashioned selfie. “Oh good, it works!” he announced.
“That was … impressive,” I said, as he released his trophy back into the wild. It was a fittingly surreal end to the most grueling three weeks of my life.
I walked into the office on Monday assuming that, with the dinner over, I would simply pick up where I left off. I would write speeches for senior staff, and occasionally for POTUS, always on the lookout for remarks involving jokes, Jews, or some combination of the two. If only it were that easy. Something was missing. Was it the joy of writing comedy? The chance to eavesdrop on Arianna Huffington and George Clooney? The fact that my Diane Keaton picture never arrived in the mail?
But as the weeks rolled on, I realized it wasn’t a lack of glamour that was bothering me. Instead, I kept thinking back to a line Valerie liked to include in her commencements: “Put yourself in the path of lightning.” For just one night, a seventeen-minute comedy monologue was the center of political attention. It was the place to address controversies, to take shots at opponents, to project confidence to the public we served.
Now, however, lightning was once again striking the campaign trail. More and more speeches—for both the president and senior staff—were the ones I could not legally write. I kind of liked having job security. I kind of loved drinking Kennedy Center beer. But nothing was as intoxicating as being part of the action.
Not long after the dinner, I asked Favs if I could leave the White House for the campaign. He agreed, but proposed a plan that kept me in Washington: I would work on political speeches for POTUS, but from the Democratic National Committee in D.C.
Which is how I found myself, a few weeks later, standing beside a conference table covered in turkey pinwheels and cheap champagne. Straut said something generous. Coworkers wrapped leftovers in paper napkins. I turned in my blue badge and BlackBerry. Just like that, I was no longer a government employee.
Leaving the building, I passed by Preacher Man. Whistle Guy’s screeching echoed down the street. Walking to the bus stop I noticed the Druid, stoic as always on his bench. It had only been a year, yet somehow I’d grown used to having them around.
How strange, I thought. These people no longer pay my salary.
Would I be back a few months from now? Was I leaving for good? That was up to the voters to decide.
From Thanks, Obama by David Litt. Copyright 2017 David Litt. Reproduced by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers