Bob Orben, One-Man Gag Factory and Speechwriter, Dies at 95

Bob Orben, who after writing jokes for Dick Gregory, Jack Paar, Red Skelton and others in the 1960s found a new avenue for his wit when he became a speechwriter for President Gerald R. Ford in 1974, died on Feb. 2 in Alexandria, Va. He was 95.

His death, at a nursing home, was confirmed by his great-niece, Yvette Chevallier.

Mr. Orben was a one-man gag factory. He wrote joke books. He dispatched one-liners to entertainers, politicians and disc jockeys through his subscription newsletter, Current Comedy. And he wrote a column, My Favorite Jokes, for Parade magazine.

“I don’t mean to blow my own horn,” he told The Washington Post in 1982, “but between Johnny Carson’s monologues, the political cartoonists such as Herblock and Oliphant, and me, if we all decide what the hot subject in the country is, that’s what it is.”

In 1968, Gerald Ford, a Michigan Republican who was then the House minority leader, needed someone to spice up a speech he was going to give to the Gridiron Club, an organization of journalists whose annual dinner was an opportunity to lampoon political figures. George Murphy, the former actor and United States senator, knew Red Skelton, for whom Mr. Orben was a writer, and recommended him.

Mr. Orben’s goal was to make Ford funny, or at least funnier than Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, another speaker at the dinner. After listening to tapes of Ford’s delivery, Mr. Orben came up with a few zingers.

“Ford was the surprise hit,” Mr. Orben recalled in 2008 in an oral history interview with the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation. Among the Orben lines Ford delivered was the observation that he had no interest in the presidency, except that “on that long drive back to Alexandria, Virginia, where I live, as I go past 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I do seem to hear a little voice within me saying, ‘If you lived here, you’d be home now.’”

Mr. Orben continued to feed jokes to Ford during his vice presidency. When Ford became president in 1974, after President Richard M. Nixon resigned, he hired Mr. Orben.

A 1975 profile of President Ford in The New York Times Magazine quoted him reading aloud from a speech written by Mr. Orben that he was going to give to the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association. It included references to a prominent Democratic senator and an agriculture secretary known for his off-color remarks.

“I have only one thing to say about a program that calls for me to follow Bob Hope,” he read. “Who arranged this? Scoop Jackson? It’s ridiculous. Bob Hope has enormous stage presence, superb comedy writing and the finest writers in the business. I’m standing here in a rented tuxedo — with three jokes from Earl Butz!”

Mr. Orben cautioned the president not to pause when delivering a good one-liner.

“Watch Hope,” he told him. “You’ll see he really punches through a line.”

Mr. Orben fed Ford self-deprecating lines that suited his personality. One of those lines, also delivered in 1975, played off something Lyndon B. Johnson had famously said about him.

“It’s a great pleasure — and great honor — to be at Yale Law’s Sesquicentennial Convocation,” he said. “And I defy anyone to say that and chew gum at the same time.”

Mr. Orben became the director of the White House speechwriting staff in early 1976 and served through the end of the Ford administration.

Mr. Orben at the White House with President Ford in 1976. He fed jokes to the president and coached him on how to deliver them.Credit…Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.

John Mihalec, a speechwriter for President Ford during the 1976 presidential campaign, said it was not surprising that a comedy writer should excel at writing speeches.

“Comedy writing is so precise — the setup and the punch line and everything has to be at exactly the right volume and in the right place,” Mr. Mihalec said in a phone interview. “It’s good training for the precision of presidential speechwriting.”

Robert Orben was born on March 4, 1927, in the Bronx to Walter and Marie Orben. His father was in the hardware business. Bob was smitten by magic at an early age, and when he was 12 he and his brother, Walter, performed a mentalist act in the Catskill Mountains, “The Boy With the Radio Mind.” It flopped.

After graduating from high school in 1943, he attended Drake Business School. He also started his short-lived career in magic.

He was hired as a magic demonstrator in a shop in Manhattan, but he found his métier not in performing magic but in writing about magicians; he was impressed by one magician’s onstage comedic patter, which led him to publish a pamphlet, “The Encyclopedia of Patter,” in 1946.

Over the next decade he would publish books like “Blue Ribbon Comedy,” “The Working Comedian’s Gag File,” “Tag-Lines,” “Bits, Boffs and Banter” and “The Emcee’s Handbook” He published dozens of joke collections in his career.

He began writing his comedy newsletter in 1958, and in the 1960s he wrote for “The Jack Paar Program” and then for “The Red Skelton Hour.”

After coming to the attention of the groundbreaking Black comedian Dick Gregory, Mr. Orben said, he sent him a page of jokes every day. Another one of Mr. Orben’s clients was someone very different from Mr. Gregory: the conservative Arizona Republican senator Barry Goldwater, for whom he wrote during his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1964.

“One of the jokes that I wrote for Greg was talking about Goldwater,” Mr. Orben said in the Ford Presidential Foundation interview. “And as you know, the campaign slogan was, ‘In your heart, you know he’s right.’ And Greg used to say, ‘In your heart, you know he’s white.’”

Mr. Orben never returned to the White House. But he kept writing joke books, among them “2500 Jokes to Start ’Em Laughing” (1979), “2100 Laughs for All Occasions” (1983) and “2000 Surefire Jokes for Speakers” (1986).

He also continued to write his newsletter through 1989, as well as writing speeches for business executives and working as a consultant to IBM.

Mr. Orben’s wife, Jean (Connelly) Orben, died last year. He leaves no immediate survivors.

In 1974, Mr. Orben was helping Vice President Ford rehearse his speech for the Gridiron Club dinner. One line, about Ronald Reagan, who was then the governor of California, worried Ford: “Governor Reagan does not dye his hair. Let’s just say he’s turning prematurely orange.”

He asked Mr. Orben, “Do you think the governor would take offense at that?”

“Now, I’m looking at this blockbuster joke of the year go up in smoke, but I think I gave him a fair, honest answer,” Mr. Orben said in the 2008 oral history interview. “I said, ‘You know, Mr. Vice President, Reagan has been in show business a good part of his life. He has gone through a thousand roasts and I’m sure he has heard dyed-hair jokes. So I really don’t think so.’”

To Mr. Orben’s relief, Vice President Ford delivered the line.

Back to top button