TAMPA, Fla. — Hitting the right comedic note in a convention speech can be tough, but Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, had delegates laughing Wednesday night at his string of one-liners poking fun at both President Obama and Mitt Romney.
Not everyone had the same success.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s quip that he has been on the short list of vice presidential picks, but didn’t make it because “apparently it wasn’t short enough” got a few uneasy chuckles — though it’s unclear whether that was because the joke fell flat or because few were paying attention.
Unless you’re one of the headliners, one of the biggest challenges to a convention speech is the hubbub on the convention floor, which doesn’t come through to viewers at home yet is very apparent to those on the podium, and can be distracting, said Artur Davis, a former congressman who spoke at Democrats’ 2008 convention and, after switching parties, spoke here this week to the GOP.
“It’s very difficult to break through in that kind of environment, so to give a successful speech in convention you have to have a lot of lines that are going to resonate. Humor always helps, and you have to have an upbeat tempo,” he said.
Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said it’s a careful balance politicians must strike.
“One-liners are the most crucial part of a convention speech — they tend to be the most memorable and most repeated. And they are awfully hard to do,” he said, adding that the White House will often turn to pros in Hollywood for help in crafting the quips.
Mr. Latimer said the best one-liners mix profound insights with good humor, and he pointed to Reagan’s line about the economic doldrums in the 1980 election as one classic example: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
For his part, Mr. Ryan issued a series of one-liners, including a quip about the youths that voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 that those who heard it in the convention hall were still talking about hours later: “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”
Paul T. Conway, president of Generation Opportunity, a group that pushes for political engagement by young adults, said the joke worked because it was poignant.
“In the minds of millions, it evokes a powerful image of the reality young Americans face every day — faded dreams, changed living conditions and careers delayed by unemployment or part-time jobs,” he said.
Nearly every speaker tried to tap the funny bone — with Mr. Obama’s golf playing being a frequent target.
Mr. Davis himself had one of this week’s most memorable jokes when he recalled the pomp of Democrats’ 2008 affair, when Mr. Obama spoke to a stadium full of adoring supporters on a stage that appeared to be taken straight from the gods of Mount Olympus.
“Maybe we should have known that night in Denver that things that begin with plywood Greek columns and artificial smoke typically don’t end well,” Mr. Davis said.
He said he wrote his speech himself, and said he didn’t test the line out on folks beforehand, though he did share a copy with a small group of friends and, like all speeches, it was vetted by the Romney campaign.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, tried to poke at Mr. Obama’s business sense, or lack thereof, saying “But why should we be surprised? President Obama has never even run a lemonade stand — and it shows.”
And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who during his own 2008 campaign made a name as a jocular candidate, drew laughs from delegates over a surefire target: accusing the press of having a liberal bias.
“Mitt has been loyal to his wife, his sons, his country, his employees, and his church,” Mr. Huckabee said, leading in to his punch line. “I’m sure the press will tell you he isn’t perfect. But for the past four years, we’ve tried the one the press thought was perfect, and that hasn’t worked out so well for us.”