How Mark Katz Made Bill Clinton a Big Joke … Haiku MTV! … Too Much Rage, Not Enough Soy Sauce

Wednesday, Sept. 13

At first, Mark Katz seems like just another comedy writer who’s trying to make the jump into the shark-tank world of television sitcoms. Hired as a staff writer for the new ABC sitcom Madigan Men , Mr. Katz is confident of his skills, but he admits he’s still got a lot to learn. He doesn’t know a lot of the sitcom-writer lingo. He hasn’t written a full script yet. And the other day, he got razzed on the set for offering some suggestions to the star of Madigan Men , Gabriel Byrne.

But then there’s the whole experience thing. Mr. Katz, who is 36 years old, small-framed and possesses blue eyes and thick, bushy brown hair, has never really written scripts for actors before. Instead, for the past eight years, Mr. Katz’s big job has been writing jokes for the President of the United States, Bill Clinton.

Mr. Katz, who lives on the Upper West Side, has been Mr. Clinton’s principal comedy writer for both terms of his Presidency. His chief responsibilities have been writing the President’s speeches for the White House Correspondents Association and the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinners, as well as Gridiron and Alfalfa Club banquets and other assorted shindigs. More important, he’s the man Mr. Clinton entrusted to infuse his Southern-fried sensibility with a sharp, Seinfeld- esque sense of comic timing.

Now, however, Mr. Katz rambles around the sprawling Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens, where Madigan Men is being taped. The new gig represents something of a showbiz departure for the Rockland County native, who has kept one toe in politics since his debut as a wisecracking volunteer in Michael Dukakis’ ill-fated 1988 Presidential campaign. But in other respects, the new job is not all that different from his old one.

“Both are kind of writing for alternate reality,” Mr. Katz said on a recent afternoon in Queens, as Mr. Byrne and the Madigan Men cast rehearsed an episode on an adjacent set. “In sitcoms, people are smarter and funnier and better-looking than they are in real life. And the White House Correspondents Association Dinner is an alternate reality where journalists dress better and are well-mannered and people are civil and the President says all these funny things that he could otherwise never say in a million years.”

Among the funnier things Mr. Katz placed in the President’s mouth during his tenure was Mr. Clinton’s killer opening line at the 1999 Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner, where, in a reference to the impeachment vote, he announced, “If the Senate vote had gone the other way, I wouldn’t be here.” And then, after a delicious pregnant pause, Mr. Clinton deadpanned: “I demand a recount.”

Mr. Katz also had a hand in the video that brought down the house at this year’s correspondents’ dinner. Directed by Everybody Loves Raymond producer Phil Rosenthal, a high-school pal of Mr. Katz’s, the video depicted a lame-duck Mr. Clinton whiling away his final days in the White House, reduced to meaningless tasks like scrubbing the First Limo. Mr. Katz said he was “blown away” by the sensation the self-deprecating video caused. “I’d seen us do good speeches before, and inside the Beltway there’d be buzz, but we’d never escaped the Beltway in that way,” he said. “It kind of transcended the culture.”

But it wasn’t always that easy for Mr. Clinton and his writer to get such yuks, Mr. Katz said. Mr. Katz, who attended Cornell and once clerked for The New York Times under then-Washington bureau chief Howell Raines, acknowledged that he struggled with the Presidential job at first, as he tried to find the proper comic voice for Mr. Clinton–a born speaker, though not a rim-shot jokester.

“He’s a great storyteller,” Mr. Katz said. “We found over time that if you could create stuff in the form of a narrative as opposed to a one-liner, he was better. It’s Southern humor–there’s a difference. It was an education for me to kind of modulate my voice and my writing style to him.

“I remember I wrote a joke one time that was foreign to him–it was firmly rooted in Yiddish construction. The joke was, ‘Great Moments in the History of Political Journalism–in 1960, people who watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates on television thought that Kennedy won. People who listened to it on the radio thought, “It’s 1960 –when the hell am I going to get a television set already ?”‘ Which is a funny joke, but you can’t be from Hope, Ark., and deliver it.”

Mr. Katz had tried for a while after college to be an advertising copywriter, but politics proved too alluring. Mr. Katz began writing jokes for President Clinton after old Dukakis buddy George Stephanopolous hooked him up with the Arkansas governor in Little Rock in 1991.

After Mr. Clinton won, Mr. Katz was asked to leave on the advertising business and formed his own “creative think tank” called the Sound Bite Institute. He began writing jokes and punching up speeches for various corporate clients. He wrote a book, “I Am Not a Corpse!” And Other Quotes Never Actually Said.

But his glam task continued to be writing jokes for the Chief Executive. Mr. Katz favored a “war room” approach to writing Mr. Clinton’s humor speeches, consulting with friends and fellow comics to whip up ideas. War room members included Mr. Katz’s law-lecturer brother, Robert, and Cindy Chupack, a sitcom writer and longtime friend of Mr. Katz’s who asked him to join the staff of Madigan Men , which she created. “I would call up and say, ‘I’m working on the President’s speech–here are the ideas that we have, here are the themes, come with me, spitball stuff, send in stuff,'” Mr. Katz recalled.

Of course, not every idea was fair game for Mr. Clinton’s speeches, especially during l’affaire Lewinsky. Unlike David Letterman or Jay Leno, Mr. Katz and his war-roommates had certain, well, topics they couldn’t make hay with. “During that period of time, the rule was, ‘You can talk about the smoke, but not the fire,'” Mr. Katz recalled. “You can talk about the hoopla of the impeachment, but not what was at the root [of the scandal]. And there was plenty there, plenty to chew on.”

Despite their best efforts, however, not every one of Mr. Katz’s speeches jumped off the page when the President sat down to read them. In fact, Mr. Katz said that Mr. Clinton’s rehearsal for the 2000 correspondents’ dinner was an unmitigated disaster. “Oh my God,” he said. “He didn’t like the material … he just wasn’t enthusiastic about it, I don’t know why. And we thought the stuff was [good]. And we knew we had a killer thing in the can with the video. But when he [went] out there, I’d never seen him like that–all eight cylinders. He was great.”

Mr. Katz said he was unsure what Mr. Clinton would do next. What about a post-White House sitcom for Bill? How about one with a washed-up former President motoring around Chappaqua on his John Deere lawnmower, bugging the neighbors? Mr. Katz smiled, though somewhat uncomfortably. “Sounds like something for Fox,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Katz will have a go with ABC and the sitcom-writing business. In Madigan Men , the brooding Mr. Byrne plays Ben Madigan, a successful architect who has recently separated from his wife and must plunge into the dating world for the first time in two decades. Despite his comedy-writing experience, Mr. Katz humbly submits that he is a sitcom neophyte, and his learning curve has been steep.

“I’m in this room with a bunch of really smart veteran writers who really know what they are doing, and are patient with me when I ask simple questions like, ‘What’s a teaser?’ or ‘What’s a blow?'” Mr. Katz said. “There’s a whole parlance to a sitcom, and I don’t know it. [Veteran writer] Tom Leopold was joking on me the other day–he goes, ‘Can we just sign him up for a goddamn New School course? I don’t got time for this.'”

Still, Mr. Katz doesn’t figure to be intimidated by his latest career change. “I’ve walked into meetings with other people and I’ll say to myself, ‘I’ve walked into the Oval Office and pitched stuff, and it’s worked,’ I can do this. And I’ll remind myself of that at a high-pressure moment.”

Tonight on ABC, a repeat of Spin City , production of which has moved from New York to Los Angeles. Thanks a lot, Charlie Sheen. [WABC, 7, 9:30 p.m.]

Thursday, Sept. 14


Big music party

Red carpet flush with hot fame

But, Carson Daly?

Madonna no-show

Kurt Loder looks really sad

Not to mention old

Karmazin, Moonves

Never saw so much fine tail

All hail Viacom

Inane press questions

Moby, you like dressing up?

Macy, you happy?

Show finally wraps

Lonely Howard Stern heads home

Spears have a curfew?

Tonight on MTV, the Tom Green Show . Mr. Green and his brand new fiancée, Drew Barrymore, were conspicuously absent from this year’s awards show. [MTV, 20, 7 p.m.]

Friday, Sept. 15

Speaking of the MTV awards, NYTV called up spastic TV guy Tad Low (one of the mad geniuses behind VH1’s Pop-Up Video and the current Metro Channel show Subway Q&A ) to ask his opinion of Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford’s unexpected scaffold climb at Radio City, a pure rock ‘n’ roll moment which earned the tattooed bassist a trip to Central Booking.

Mr. Low, you may or may not remember, disrupted the 2000 TV Guide Awards this spring by hopping onstage and trying to swipe Carson Daly’s Favorite Musical Show trophy for Total Request Live . So, in theory at least, he would appreciate what Mr. Commerford was trying to do when he climbed up a pointy metal sculpture behind the podium as rival rockers Limp Bizkit were accepting an award, and hung there like a bat until the cops coerced him down.

Reached at his office on Monday, Sept. 11, however, Mr. Low didn’t sound that impressed. “It was kind of cowardly of him [Commerford] that he had to be pulled down like a kitty in a tree,” Mr. Low opined. “If you’re going to go for an aggressive stage assault, you have to follow it through.”

Mr. Low said he would have preferred Mr. Commerford to have taken a stage dive into the MTV mosh pit. Still, he grudgingly placed the Rage guy’s act in the canon alongside such awards-show disrupters as himself and Michael Portnoy, a.k.a. Soy Bomb, the New York performance artist who infamously danced onstage–shirtless with SOY BOMB painted on his chest–during Bob Dylan’s performance at the 1998 Grammys.

But Soy Bomb wasn’t sure what to make of Mr. Commerford, either. “Although I favor any kind of disruption, I favor those kinds of disruptions whose substance is art,” Mr. Portnoy said in an interview. “This one [Commerford’s] didn’t appear to have any art to it.”

And what was Soy Bomb’s artful message, after all? “I wanted to give soy products a facelift because they had a terrible image at the time,” Mr. Portnoy said.

Alrighty then. Tonight on the Metro channel, continued coverage of Fall Fashion Week . Maybe Tad Low, Tim Commerford and Soy Bomb will show up at the Michael Kors show and start trouble. [METRO, 70, all day starting at 6 a.m.]

Saturday, Sept. 16

Hey, it’s the Summer Olympics ! Just like NYTV politely pretends every Thanksgiving to like his aunt’s squash-and-marshmallow casserole, millions of Americans sit up every four years and pretend to like discus, diving and 3,000 other athletic obscurities they wouldn’t cross the street to watch for the following three years, eleven months and two weeks. [WNBC, 4, 7 p.m.]

Sunday, Sept. 17

Tonight on the Fox Family Channel, The Elián Gonzalez Story . No mas . [FAM, 14, 8 p.m.]

Monday, Sept. 18

Did you ever have a roommate who used to yap incessantly during football games, thinking his inane cynical chirps passed for comedy? Hence, the trouble with Monday Night Football . Dallas at Washington. [WABC, 7, 9 p.m.]

Tuesday, Sept. 19

Tonight on the soon-to-be PN, a show called Teen Files: Surviving High School chronicles the lives of 11 students at a California high school, begging the question of whether there are any zit-addled pubescents whose lives have not been the subject of a TV documentary this year. [UPN, 9, 8 p.m.] How Mark Katz Made Bill Clinton a Big Joke … Haiku MTV! … Too Much Rage, Not Enough Soy Sauce