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Backstory: Serious business of jokes in politics

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The nation's capital is gearing up for its "silly season" - that gauntlet of dinners from January through April that can launch a political star. Or not. Knock 'em dead at an event like the Gridiron Club or White House Correspondents' Dinner and a politician can become Steve Allen overnight. The right joke, deftly told, is also a preemptive strike. It can ease a scandal, derail an attack, or make someone more likable, even if they're not.

But it's also easy to strike out on the Washington humor circuit. Lines that get laughs in New York or Los Angeles can look coarse, or, worse, naive here.

Those that can help politicians navigate humor - a shifting corps of funnymen and women ranging from professional joke writers to think-tankers, journalists, and congressional staff - are prized. Unlike the serious speech writers, most of the purveyors of punch lines like to remain anonymous, for understandable reasons: Politicians don't want to look like the wrong end of a ventriloquist act.

The writers steal (shamelessly) from each other, and the fight to have the last edit on a political stand-up routine can be as fierce as the one over a State of the Union address. The reason? Jokes are serious business in politics.

"It's mandatory in this day and age to be considered to have a sense of humor and to demonstrate it," says Robert Orben, a comedy writer for Red Skelton and Jack Paar before moving to Washington to direct President Ford's White House speech-writing department. "You're not paying me for a joke," he tells clients. "You're paying me for the right joke."


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