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Obama’s former joke writer on the art of presidential comedy




President Barack Obama speaks at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Saturday, April 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama speaks at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Saturday, April 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Susan Walsh/AP

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President Obama hosted his final White House Correspondents' Association Dinner Saturday night. 

As one might expect, the presidential race proved ripe with fodder:

https://youtu.be/l-5vD5YVLv8?t=2m25s

For a deeper look at humor during President Obama's tenure, Take Two spoke to David Litt. He was the lead joke writer for four of the past comedy suppers. 

Writing jokes is pretty hard period. What’s different about writing jokes for this particular event?

This is always a tough event because the president goes back to being the president the day after. He’s the president the day before, so you have to make sure you’re writing really funny material for the president to deliver, but also that it exists within that context of everything else that’s going on in Washington and around the world.

What can you tell us about [President Obama’s] taste in humor? Any trends there?

I think there're two things. One, he’s always willing to make fun of himself. He recognizes that that is a part of the dinner — to prove that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. At the same time, he wants to be edgy, not for a comedian, but edgy for a president. He wants stuff that is really sharp, and he’s got a good eye for these things, so if you give him something where the punchline is good but not that good he will notice and he will ask you to go back and improve it. 

I want to go back in time to when you were writing for the president … And there was one joke that he did involving a co-star: Keegan-Michael Key of Key & Peele. He made an appearance standing right next to Obama as his 'anger translator' named Luther ... What was it like to put together this particular bit?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkAK9QRe4ds

We had wanted to do a ‘Luther, the anger translator’ live appearance with the president for a long time. Last year just felt like the year to do it … The hard part was — mostly — that when we rehearsed it, the president, he was enjoying it. He liked it. The only problem was he couldn’t stop laughing … I have to say … at the dinner, he pulled it off. I was sure at least once he was going to lose it, but the entire time he kept a straight face … 

How much do you think we should consider a president’s ability to be funny when we’re evaluating [a president]?

Every president is trying to communicate to the American people. And you always want to use the media that the American people are listening to. You know, if FDR — when he was president that was radio — today, [it’s] comedy. The viral videos that he’s done, both the Luther anger translator piece from last year but also between two ferns with Zach Galifianakis to promote health care, those are parts of the way he’s gotten his message across and he’s the first president to do that in that way. 

Press the blue play button above to hear the interview.