Comedian-in-Chief: President Obama Gets More Laughs Than Jay Leno

Washington abuzz over Obama's comic timing

ByABC News
March 19, 2010, 1:52 PM

May 3, 2010 -- After the White House Correspondents Association dinner, as reporters, celebrities and politicos mingled at a handful of after parties, the buzz centered on one question -- how was it that President Obama was so much funnier than Jay Leno?

Leno was the professional comedian booked by the correspondents association to entertain guests at the annual dinner.

But it was Obama who brought down the house by sticking to the key, unofficial rules for presidential comedy -- self-deprecating humor, perfect to diffuse sticky political situations.

The president's 17-minute bit was written by two of his speechwriters, Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett, with input from a writer from "The Daily Show;" Jeff Shesol, a former Clinton White House speechwriter, and Jeff Nussbaum, a Democratic speechwriter who is one of the go-to guys in Washington when a politician has to moonlight as a comedian.

Obama opened up by acknowledging that since he spoke at the same dinner last year, times have changed for both him and NBC's one-time late-night comedy leader.

"I am glad that the only person whose ratings fell more than mine last year is here tonight -- great to see you, Jay," the president said to laughter from the dinner crowd of about 2,700 guests.

Obama said he was glad to be first up at the podium -- "because we've all seen what happens when somebody takes the time slot after Leno's," the president said. It was a well-aimed zinger, after NBC tried to move Leno to prime time -- and when it failed, moved him back to late-night, bumping Conan O'Brien from "The Tonight Show."

A president always gets a respectful audience during a stand-up routine because first, he is the president, and second, the audience understands that comedy bits are not part of his job description.

But the audience Saturday night seemed to laugh genuinely at the presidential one-liners; Obama got more than polite applause.

So why did the president earn such reviews?

Dinner guests told ABC News that his timing was perfect, he was enjoying himself and he was edgy. He threatened to strike down the Jonas Brothers with predator drones if they hit on his tween daughters. He played on the conspiracy theories about his lack of a birth certificate proving he was born in the United States.

"By the way, all of the jokes here tonight are brought to you by our friends at Goldman Sachs," the president said. "So you don't have to worry -- they make money whether you laugh or not."

The Washington Examiner's Julie Mason said it was the president, not Leno, who brought the laughs on Saturday night.

"He seemed really relaxed and loose on Saturday, very affable," said Mason, who serves on the White House Correspondents Association board and sat on stage with the president and Leno.

In the opinion of one television reporter, Leno, who relied heavily on notecards and seemed to rush through his punchlines, "mailed it in."

"What was that? Maybe he was insulted by the president's time-slot joke?" the reporter asked.

The general sentiment among many dinner guests was that a professional comedian is a key part of the night's lineup, but perhaps there should be an effort to book someone with more edge, like Chelsea Handler or Jimmy Fallon.

But Mason said that can be tricky and it is important to remember who is at this dinner.

"The problem is finding ones who don't do a lot of profanity -- I think a lot of us would love to get Chris Rock, for example, but his act is too extreme for the stodgy old White House dinner," she said.

One reporter quipped that beyond Obama and Leno, perhaps the biggest credit should go to WHCA president Ed Chen "for cutting down on the epic program and getting the audience to shut up and listen."

For the president and other politicians who dare to take a turn at comedy, such routines require a significant amount of preparation, rehearsal -- and guts.

So why do politicians ever agree to do this? Why take a chance that jokes will fall flat and routines will bomb?

Several comedy writers who have worked with lawmakers on these kinds of appearances told ABC News that a stand-up comedy act is a powerful tool to show that politicians don't take themselves too seriously, and it gives them a chance to bask in a more forgiving spotlight.

"There is a tradition to doing these things, a prestige to do these kinds of events," said Eric Schnure, a veteran political speechwriter and comedy writer. "I think the driving force is that politicians are in the business of having people like them and it's not as much getting laughs as it is being liked."

Schnure said that humor is one of the few things that can go a long way to humanizing a politician.

"It's an incredible opportunity to get a warm response from a crowd who is usually skeptical of you -- the media," said another veteran comedy writer. "And it's an incredible opportunity to be self-deprecating, which is really endearing."

Landon Parvin, who has written comedy routines for several Republican presidents, including former President George W. Bush, said these speeches are "another means for the public to judge the president."

"People don't get to see a president in that kind of humorous mode very often," Parvin said.

Rule #1 for politicians: "Don't be offensive."

The comedy should be "reassuring, not cutting," Parvin said.

The veteran comedy writer pointed out that while there is an inherent risk to standing in front of a large audience and trying to be funny, there is also a big payoff if successful.

"The reason they put themselves through it is if you are self-deprecating you get up there and say, 'The pressure hasn't gotten to me, I can laugh at myself," Parvin said. "The problems aren't so bad that I can't joke about what's going on.'"