It was 2014 and Diamond Joe was having a moment.
The muscle-car-revving, hair-metal-blasting party animal, conceived as satire by The Onion as Joe Biden’s alter-ego, had suddenly become the toast of Washington — never mind the actual Joe Biden doesn’t drink and has remained happily married for four decades.
Still, the best comedy contains truths. Though he’d later come to resent the “goofy uncle” label, Biden was willing to be in on the joke for a little while. And so, on a spring afternoon, he found himself sitting in a canary yellow Corvette Stingray, aviator sunglasses in place, filming a video for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner with his fictional “Veep” equivalent played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
“He was really game for that. He sort of understood what was funny about himself,” said David Litt, a speechwriter who helped shepherd the video crew on Biden’s shoot through the Oval Office.
Eight years later, Biden is preparing to deliver his own high-profile routine at this year’s correspondents’ dinner, his first outing as a live comedian-in-chief and the highest-profile opportunity to showcase what people close to him insist is a “genuinely good” sense of humor.
Still, Biden is playing to a tough room at a tough moment. And while he’ll happily poke fun at his quirks — real and perceived — at heart he’s an earnest man in a difficult job.
“This is a President who has used the expression ‘Not a joke, folks’ more than he has told actual jokes,” said Jeff Nussbaum, who until this week worked as a speechwriter at the White House and has been involved in humor speech preparation for Biden. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing in serious times. It’s just that President Biden is a serious person dealing with serious challenges.”
Biden’s speech has been in the works for a few weeks, officials said, and wasn’t finished as of Friday. But at the outset of the writing process, the President told his team he envisioned an address that went beyond just an amalgamation of one-liners, wisecracks and gags.
Yes, there will be jokes — about himself, about the media and about Republicans — that Biden is currently refining from a list of dozens submitted by his wide orbit of advisers. But he also intends to use the appearance to loudly affirm his belief in a free press after his predecessor — who skipped the yearly dinner — labeled reporters the “enemy of the people.”
“Think of what the American press has done,” Biden said this week in a speech about Ukraine, mentioning the upcoming dinner as a moment to celebrate reporters. “The courage it’s taken to stay in those war zones. … I can’t tell you how much respect I have, watching them in these zones, under fire, risking their lives, to make sure the world gets the truth.”
“He has made the decision he wants to attend, in a safe way, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to show his support, showcase his support for the free press,” press secretary Jen Psaki said this week. “That does stand in stark contrast to his predecessor, who not only questioned the legitimacy of the press on a nearly daily basis, but also never attended the dinner.”
A tough time for jokes in front of a tough crowd
Like any comedian, Biden has weighed his audience and the current environment as he determines what to say.
Now is not the easiest moment for topical stand-up, officials acknowledge. There is nothing funny about the war in Ukraine or its atrocities. And while the Covid pandemic and its myriad interruptions to life have provided plenty of fodder for comedians, its death toll and economic ripples are not topics anyone can laugh about.
“It is a challenge for the people writing this speech that there’s so many serious issues going on in the world. At the same time, I think it’s important that the President is doing it. President Trump never showed up to this dinner because he couldn’t stand the idea of being made fun of and they don’t know that he would have done very well,” said Litt, who led a process of drafting President Barack Obama’s annual comedy speeches at the correspondents dinner.
“Having a president come up and be able to make fun of himself, generally tell some jokes, talk about the press and maybe make fun of the press a little bit, but also talk about the role of the free press — these aren’t small things, they’re big things.”
The pandemic will be hard to ignore at the dinner, attended by more than 2,500 people in a basement hotel ballroom. At least one high-profile attendee — Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser — has decided he won’t go. And Biden’s team has taken special precautions to avoid him getting infected, including only attending during speeches and not the part when people are eating.
But he remains intent on being there, Psaki said this week, to demonstrate his support for a free press. Before the big night, Biden is expected to do a few practice runs of his speech to get a feel for the delivery and timing, a person familiar with the matter said.
“Comedy requires rhythm and timing that might not be as natural within the context of a normal speech that he’s given 1,000 times as a politician,” said Matt Teper, who worked as speechwriter for Biden when he was vice president. “He has a natural sense of humor, and he cared enough to make sure that came through almost professionally and in a polished joke telling kind of way.”
Flopping at a dinner for Washington insiders is hardly one of Biden’s primary concerns in these grave times. Still, delivering a speech that draws some laughs and needles just the right amount is not a task the President or his team are taking lightly.
“I do not envy him for having to deliver it. I do not envy the people who are writing it around him and the people who are even writing the jokes with? All of this pressure bearing down on every word,” said Teper.