In the spring of 1993, the Clinton administration was in a jam.
The first 100 days hadn't gone well. The president had been shaken by troubles large and small: the Branch Davidian raid, gays in the military, even an ill-advised haircut. The press office was saying everything was fine, but the administration knew better: at an upcoming White House Correspondents' Association dinner, Clinton was going to meet with a chilly reception, and he needed to face his antagonists head on.
The administration called Mark Katz. He gave them jokes.
And it worked. Clinton disarmed his audience with a riff on a previous president's unlucky start -- "At this point in his administration, William Henry Harrison had already been dead 68 days" -- and got a new lease of life with the Beltway insiders.
OK, so Mark Katz isn't Superman. He isn't even Letterman, though he once appeared on Dave's old "Late Night" show to do a Stupid Pet Trick. No, he's simply the head and sole staffer of his Manhattan "creative think tank," the Soundbite Institute.
For almost two decades, when politicians and corporate chieftains -- including Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, former Viacom head Tom Freston and Time Warner's Jeff Bewkes -- have needed a hand with a presentation, they call Katz to construct their presentations and pepper their speeches with jokes and witticisms. (Time Warner is CNN's parent company.)
Don't call him a joke writer, though. Mark Katz is a problem solver.
"The phone call I get most often is, 'I need help with a joke,'" he says. "And when someone calls me up and tells me they need a joke, I immediately know they do not know what they need."
Katz, 48, will occasionally crack wise himself, but in general he takes humor seriously. He stands maybe 5-foot-8 but seems taller; on this weekday morning he's dressed in a natty sport coat and jeans. The New York Times described him as someone who "actually looks like a cross between a comic and a consultant," and that's about right. There are hints of the impish class clown he once was in his easy smile and heavy-lidded blue eyes, but make no mistake: This is a guy who knows his stuff.
Katz usually plies his trade from a Flatiron District office building in a small, well-hidden rented cubicle at the offices of a consulting firm. There are few signs of his career here: a framed photograph of a laughing Clinton, Katz and aide Bill Curry; two flatscreen monitors perched atop copies of his book "Clinton and Me;" a bust of Homer found at a garage sale; a Soundbite Institute sign affixed to a wall; a pair of dice reminding him to be "purposefully humorous."
Other than that, the cube is as anonymous and claustrophobic as they come, like the forgotten rear table at a busy restaurant. A huge support column protrudes from the floor nearby, and the restrooms are literally around the corner.
Moreover, on this weekday morning, the area is even more hemmed in than usual. The TV show "The Good Wife" has commandeered half the floor to film an episode, so we retreat to a conference room for an interview.
But if Katz's "office" is bland, the man is anything but. He comes to his topic with a youthful enthusiasm, still easily revved up by new challenges and quick to rhapsodize about favorite comedians and lines.
He's no slouch himself, says his friend and former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol. "He is a master of the one-liner," says Shesol, who now works for a Washington-based consulting shop of former Clinton scribes, West Wing Writers.
Katz, who worked for the Clinton administration on a free-lance basis while building his New York firm, cares deeply about the sound of laughter -- not just because it's a sign of success, but because it's a bond between the speaker and the audience. After all, he observes, humor can humanize, especially when self-directed. Humor relieves tension. Humor is a way of addressing the elephant in the room, of speaking text and subtext.
"Once you start opening up the conversation to humor, a lot more things seem possible. It's a great way into the topic: How do we solve this problem?" he says. "And that gets you to a more creative solution that you otherwise wouldn't have reached."
It's always an opportunity, whether for collaboration, connection or creativity. During the Clinton years, he says, it always seemed that the occasions for humorous speeches -- primarily large dinners with a roomful of journalists and Washington big shots -- happened during the most crisis-strewn times of the presidency. But such pressures made his job all the more interesting.
"It was my job, and our job, to say, 'How do you solve this problem using humor?' So it was a great laboratory of problem-solving," he says. "And we encountered almost every kind of problem there was."
Mixing Mel Brooks and Michael Dukakis
Katz's career choice would appear to have been preordained.
Growing up in Rockland County, just north of New York City, the second of four children of an orthodontist, Katz was infatuated with two subjects: politics and comedy. His parents were devoted Democrats, and Katz recalls watching the Watergate hearings as a 9-year-old boy, enthralled with the case against Richard Nixon.
But there was another side of Katz, the side that reveled in his Uncle Al's record collection, which included LPs by George Carlin, Bill Cosby and the National Lampoon, as well as Mel Brooks' "2,000-Year-Old Man."
He and his friends studied the records like yeshiva students poring over Talmud. "There's so much to learn. Each joke is like a poem -- they're there to be deconstructed and analyzed and interpreted and enjoyed and retold," he says. (He still gives out box sets of the "2,000-Year-Old Man" as gifts.)
In high school he published humor columns in the school newspaper. He did the same in college, at Cornell, while majoring in government. The two interests first came together professionally when he volunteered for Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential run. (Insert your own joke here.) By the latter days of the campaign he was working for its Rapid Response Team, coming up with soundbites for the sometimes all-too-earnest candidate. One, at the annual October Al Smith Dinner, went, "It's a great pleasure to be here ... on an evening when all thought of politics is banished and I can concentrate on what I do best -- humor."
Combining politics and comedy was a natural fit for Katz -- just as politics and comedy have been a natural combination for ages.