In Hollywood, the old adage goes, dying is easy, comedy is hard.
When it comes to campaigns, that chestnut also applies. In fact, comedy is considered so problematic, not many speechwriters attempt it for their office holders or candidates.
That’s unfortunate because comedy can be a powerful tool.
Not long ago, I attended a workshop conducted by West Wing Writers, a firm started by former speechwriters of the Clinton administration, and they tackled a lot of challenges political speechwriters face, including humor.
Jeff Nussbaum, a veteran speechwriter for the likes of Al Gore and Joe Biden, touched on the importance of humor in public speaking. Coming from the stand-up world, it was refreshing to hear comedy has its place in campaigns.
Here are a few ways to help your candidates win with wit.
Break down the walls with self-depreciating humor
Just because you take your presentation seriously doesn’t mean you have to take yourself seriously. As Nussbaum pointed out in the workshop, there’s often an authoritative barrier between speaker and audience.
A presenter is usually standing, and the audience is usually sitting. To narrow the gap, start with a joke.
This summer I wrote a speech for a doctor giving a keynote at a charity fundraiser. It was the doctor’s first time speaking in this type of setting, and most of the audience was unfamiliar with him. He started with this:
Good evening everyone. It’s an honor to be standing here in front of so many people who care about the future of kidney disease.
My profession is actually in health care. I am a plastic surgeon, so you can join my wife in the debate on whether that qualifies me as a real doctor.
The simple line lets us know A) what he does for a living and B) that he’s aware of the stereotypes that come with his profession.
Do some wordsmithing
Nussbaum took us through an exercise where we associated as many words as possible with a fictional speaker for a typical event. It looked something this (insert your own candidate and event):
Jeff Bezos giving a college commencement speech. What do we associate with Bezos? Amazon, billionaire, Bill Gates, Princeton grad, etc. Now comes the fun part. Just start writing openers:
Good afternoon graduates. It’s great to be here. When (name of college) asked me to speak here today, I had only three questions. Where, when, and is there enough acreage for an Amazon fulfillment center?
Good afternoon graduates. What a historic day. As some of you know, I am a college grad myself. I graduated from Princeton with a major in electrical engineering and a minor in free, two-day shipping.
Good afternoon graduates. I am proud to be here. When the dean offered me the chance to speak today I happily said yes. He then told me what the compensation was and I politely asked him to donate the money to those less fortunate. I hope Bill and Melinda spend it wisely.
For this type of exercise, I suggest writing four to six options. The first one to three options are usually funny observations and ideas. But if you dig deeper, you’ll find a better joke.
Remember what humor brings to the table
Comedy is something few people try, but everyone should take a stab at.
Speechwriter for Congressman John K. Delaney (D-Md.), Mike Souder, knows just how important humor can be.
“Think about the funniest person you know. You’re probably smiling right now remembering something funny they said or did,” Souder told me recently. “That’s what humor does. It impacts people and leaves them with a lasting impression. Isn’t that exactly what you’d want from a speech? While substance is always important, it’s the style that makes you memorable.”
Just because you don’t have an hour-long Netflix special doesn’t mean you can’t write a joke. Comedy is universal. Even in DC.
Josh Womack is an independent speechwriter and the co-founder of Laugh Staff.