The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bob Orben, comedy writer who crafted Gerald Ford’s speeches, dies at 95

Bob Orben, left, with President Gerald Ford in the Oval Office on March 15, 1976. (Ricardo Thomas/Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)
7 min

Did you hear the one about the president, the joke writer and the country in crisis?

The president was Gerald Ford. The crisis was Watergate and the wreckage of the Nixon administration. And the joke writer was Bob Orben, whose arsenal of one-liners were deployed by TV comedy star Red Skelton, comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory and conservative Republican senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.

Mr. Orben’s specialty was humor at Washington’s expense. “Congress killed the federal aid-to-education bill, and I don’t blame them,” he said in 1961. “If it’s one thing those fellas have to worry about it’s educated voters.”

In 1974, Mr. Orben was a hired scribe for the newly sworn-in Ford — a role that would grow to include speechwriting for major addresses including the State of the Union. Mr. Orben’s task at hand was to help Ford with his second public event since moving into the Oval Office after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon.

“We forget how tense those times were,” recalled Mr. Orben, who died Feb. 2 at 95 at an assisted-living facility in Alexandria, Va. “The troops were being alerted, did our system of government work?

Mr. Orben did his thing, crafting an ice-breaking opening quip for Ford at an Ohio State commencement ceremony before 15,000 people.

“So much has happened in these few months since you were kind enough to ask me to speak here today,” Ford said. “I was then America’s first instant vice president. And now, America’s first instant president. The United States Marine Corps Band is so confused. They don’t know whether to play ‘Hail to the Chief’ or ‘You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.’”

Mr. Orben’s path to the White House inner circle was similarly unexpected. As a kid, he was on the Catskills circuit with his brother in a mentalist act, “The Boy with the Radio Mind.” Later, he churned out comedy bits for Las Vegas regulars such as Red Buttons and talk show host Jack Paar.

In 1968, Mr. Orben received a call on behalf of Ford, then a Republican congressman from Michigan and House minority leader. Ford needed help for a speech at the Gridiron Club, whose annual dinner is Washington’s version of a celebrity roast with political figures as choice targets.

“Ford was the surprise hit,” Mr. Orben recalled. Mr. Orben coached Ford on his comic timing. First, he told him, say flatly he had no interest in running for the presidency — except perhaps when he drives home to Virginia and goes past 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“I do seem to hear a little voice within me saying, ‘If you lived here, you’d be home now,’” Ford said to a round of laughs.

When Ford was picked by Nixon as successor to disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president in December 1973, Mr. Orben was back in Ford’s fold. He came along to the White House after Ford became the 38th president. In 1976, Mr. Orben became director of the White House speechwriting staff and was involved in Ford’s unsuccessful reelection campaign against Jimmy Carter. (Mr. Orben always remained a Democrat, however.)

“I don’t know that Ford had a natural bent for humor, but he liked it, and he had the courage to get the words out and then wait for the laughter,” Mr. Orben said in 2008 in an oral history. “That doesn’t sound like much, but I tell you from a lifetime of experience, it’s a lot.”

Mr. Orben even helped manage a good-natured jab at “Saturday Night Live” cast member Chevy Chase, who made a running gag of playing Ford — in reality a gifted athlete — as klutzy and goofy. At the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner in 1975, Ford grabbed the edge of a tablecloth on the way to the dais and sent silverware spilling toward Chase, a guest at the event.

Ford, Mr. Orben said, “was someone who was not afraid to have fun at his own expense.”

Mr. Orben also set the bar high for his own output. With a notepad, pen and endless cups of coffee, he aimed to write “25 jokes a day, seven days a week.” Many of them showed up in more than 40 books and other published work that included compendiums of one-liners and magician stage banter.

Washington Post writer Bill Gold often turned to Mr. Orben for sparks of wit for his column. In 1979 on the economy: “Bob Orben has evidence we’re really in a recession. A New York disco has begun selling Cocaine Helper.”

Before a much-anticipated summit in Iceland in 1986 between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Orben told Washington reporters: “Summit meetings tend to be like panda matings. The expectations are always high, and the results usually disappointing.''

Mr. Orben never went too risque or cut too deep and he refused to gossip about clients, former associates said. (He was well compensated, getting $1,500 for five minutes of wisecracks for corporate customers in his prime.)

Despite his reputation as a reliable joke machine, Mr. Orben said he had little skill telling a joke and was often the quietest person in any room. “I’m more often taken for a minister or a mortician than a comedy writer,” he said in a 1979 radio interview.

“He was a student of culture, always watching the news, trends and what’s happening in society,” said Greg Thompson, a former IBM in-house writer who worked alongside Mr. Orben in the 1980s. “It would not be lost on him that he died on Groundhog Day. I’m surprised he didn’t come back to life just for the comic possibilities in that.”

Taste for magic

Robert Orben was born in the Bronx on March 4, 1927, on the cusp of the Great Depression that left his parents struggling to find steady work. By the time Mr. Orben was 13, he and his brother were trying to break into entertainment with their mind-reading act. “Incredibly bad,” he said.

In the mid-1940s, he attended Drake business school, where he met his future wife, Jean Connelly, and later left his studies to pursue his interest in magic. He was hired to do sleight-of-hand tricks at a shop in Manhattan and later had his first writing credit, a 1946 booklet, “The Encyclopedia of Patter,” inspired by magicians’ onstage spiels.

His books over the decades included “The Working Comedian’s Gag File” (1953), “The Emcee’s Handbook” (1956) and “2,000 Sure-Fire Jokes for Speakers” (1986).

In the 1960s, he was on the writing teams for “The Jack Paar Program” and “The Red Skelton Hour.” After the Ford administration, Mr. Orben found work in the business world including as senior writing consultant with IBM.

Mr. Orben’s wife of 77 years died last year. They had no children. A great-niece, Yvette Chevallier, confirmed Mr. Orben’s death but did not provide a cause.

Mr. Orben said he never had the nerve to try stand-up comedy — or politics. But from the sidelines, they can look a lot the same to a comedy writer. Both, he said, are at their best when they touch on a “comic truth.”

“Humor reaches out and puts its arm around the listener and says, ‘I am one of you, I understand,’” he told The Post in 1986, “and implicitly it promises, ‘I will do something about your problems.’”