- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004


Mark Katz

Miramax Books, $22, 375 pages

Mark Katz, as he readily admits, comes from a New York Jewish family that expected him to be an orthodontist like his father, or perhaps a lawyer. Instead, after graduating from Cornell University and working for a couple of advertising agencies, he followed his natural smart-aleckproclivities (again self-admitted) and became a humor writer.

Also, following in the footsteps of his parents, he became a liberal Democrat. These two factors eventually led to his becoming President Bill Clinton’s gag writer for two terms.

He has been out of work — at least the work of supplying one-liners for presidents — for the last three years. He was not asked by President Bush to stay on, although, in fairness, he probably would have turned down the job had it been offered.

Not so if former Vice President Al Gore had been elected. Mr. Katz was hoping, indeed planning, to carry on his duties in a Gore administration and likely would have. He had helped Mr. Gore with some of his funny (which may explain why they were funny) speeches before the Washington Gridiron Club and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Mr. Katz has written a book about his life and times, starting as a smart-alecky school boy. “Clinton & Me” could just as well have been called “Me and Clinton,” since it is mostly about Mr. Katz and somewhat less about Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Katz labors under the illusion that the reader will care about his childhood chums and smart-mouthed classroom remarks. I don’t think that is the case, although one of his wisecracks when he was in high school was (to me, at least) laugh-out-loud funny. Truthfully, however, there was more meaness than funniness to it, but, after all, to each his own.

As the author recounts, the school play one year was “The Miracle Worker,” about Anne Sullivan Macy who taught the blind and deaf Helen Keller. On the school public-address system, Mr. Katz urged students to “come see the play Helen Keller couldn’t.” School officials, unlike Mr. Katz and me, didn’t think that was a funny line.

For a man who has written gags for one president and one almost-president, Mr. Katz is, or at least pretends to be, surprisingly modest. Humor writers, he says, “are funny people who are constantly in the process of convincing the world they are indispensably funny — and at the same time quietly trying to convince themselves of the same thing.”

Though he believes, with some justification, that he is a truly funny man, he freely admits he sends jokes to friends and associates for their approval, suggestions and editing, and just as freely admits there were times when Mr. Clinton didn’t like or didn’t use gags he thought were hilarious.

The author’s first job after college was in a regional office of the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but by l988 he was working in the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, where he met and became a friend of George Stephanopoulos and others who wound up in the Clinton White House. These contacts led to his writing gags for Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore.

Even though he was in and out of the White House for eight years, Mr. Katz seems never to have gotten over his awe of working with the U.S. president, or as a consequence meeting such Democratic celebrities as Barbra Streisand.

He obviously has saved most of what he has written and he litters the book with many of his jokes and gags. A problem with old political jokes, however, is that they lose their timeliness and therefore are less funny the second time around. Additionally, to be really funny, political humor often depends on who delivers the lines and in what context.

Altogether, however, “Clinton & Me” is a pleasant book that makes for a few hours of easy reading, while at the same time informing the reader how it happens that unfunny and egotistical politicians can, when the occasion demands, be not only humorous but also wittily self-deprecating.

And, while he doesn’t say so, it is plain that Mr. Katz uses his book to lay out his humor-writing credentials and now is waiting for the day when his phone will ring and a new Democratic president calls to summon him to begin work on his first Gridiron Club speech.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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