Jon Macks knows how to throw a 4th of July party. For 14 years, he’s written A Capitol Fourth, broadcast live on PBS from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. He will again this year. (Check local listings for time.)
“The ingredients are basic,” says Macks, a WGA award-winner and eight-time Emmy nominee. “Terrific hosts, great music, big stars and fireworks. Mix together and you get the biggest, best Independence Day celebration in the nation.”
We’re guaranteed a star-spangled show with entertainment that includes host John Stamos, The Beach Boys, Luke Combs, Renee Fleming and a script by top-notched writer, Jon Macks.
The former Oak Park resident has written for the most prestigious award programs, including 21 Academy Awards, 20 Emmy Awards, 9 Golden Globes and 2 Tony Awards—and that’s the short list. Macks is the “go-to” guy for TV specials, as well. IMDb lists 184 writing credits in total.
Chris Rock called Macks “the greatest comedy writer of all time,” and he’s been dubbed “The Joke Machine” by show biz folks in the know.
Macks was one of Jay Leno’s top writers on The Tonight Show for its 22-year run. “Out of 500,000 jokes I wrote, 482,000 are in a landfill,” he says.
Early in his career, Macks was a political consultant with a funny bone, a perfect fit for late-night TV and its topical humor. He was recognized in 2004 by Newsday, as one of 20 people in TV/radio to influence coverage of the Presidential campaign.
This unique perspective is behind his fifth book, Monologue: What Makes America Laugh Before Bed—a look at how late-night shows have shaped public opinion.
A proud Philadelphia native: “My blood type is 50% Cheez Whiz and 50% Eagles Green,” laughs Macks, noting that his parents and brother weren’t political or particularly humorous. Macks, however, was obsessed with politics and knew he was funny since he was 15 and sent jokes to Johnny Carson. Unfortunately, Carson didn’t accept unsolicited material.
While majoring in History at Villanova University, he had a briefs career as an underwear model appearing “in a Sears catalogue in very colorful boxers.”
Legal briefs weren’t in his future either. He volunteered on campaigns while attending Villanova Law School, and after graduating and passing the bar, he chose to continue with politics rather than law. He was hired to run a Congressional campaign and his candidate won!
With Democratic strategists, James Carville and Paul Begala, Macks worked on Bob Casey’s 1986 fourth bid for Governor of Pennsylvania. This time, Casey was victorious.
The next day, Macks and wife Julie—who he met on an earlier campaign—moved to Washington, D.C. for his job with a top Democratic consulting firm.
Fast forward to 1991: Macks started writing jokes for a DJ in D.C. and, Senator Paul Simon, who thought Macks was funny, asked him to help with his speech at the Gridiron dinner. Afterwards, Bobby Kennedy’s former press secretary Frank Mankiewicz, who was helping Simon, called to say the jokes went over well and suggested he do it for a living. “I wasn’t sure if that meant I was a good joke writer or a bad political consultant, but it got me thinking, ‘maybe I can do this.’”
The same year, Macks saw Jay Leno’s stand-up act and was “blown away.” Undeterred by his Carson experience, he sent jokes to Leno and received a freelance agreement from NBC.
When Leno replaced Carson, he asked Macks to join the staff. Macks told his D.C. partners he would try it for 13 weeks and then return. He never went back.
“I traveled 250 nights a year doing campaigns,” he says. “If I wanted to be a father to my three children, I needed a job where I could be home with them.” Leno gave his staff time to spend with family. Macks coached his kids’ sports teams and served as Vice President of Agoura Pony Baseball.
At work, Macks’ goal was to turn in 100 jokes a day. “If Jay used four, it was a great day; three, a good day. If zero, I’d think it was over,” Macks says.
But Bob Smith’s advice was never far from mind. “Bob was the one Carson writer who stayed with Jay,” says Macks. “He said, ‘it’s a marathon not a sprint—don’t get too high or low over one joke or one night.’ And … ‘buy a house cheaper than one you can afford. In show business, all the money you make can disappear at the whim of a network executive.’”
Macks’ party affiliation didn’t influence his writing. “I was more likely to poke fun at Democrats to ensure I was balanced,” he says. Plus, he notes, Democrats were in the White House most of Leno’s tenure and presidents are always the focus of gags.
When setting up jokes about a politician or celebrity, find what comes after “the comma.” he says. “The comma is shorthand for what defines the person,” Macks explains. “Hillary Clinton, cold; Al Gore, boring.”
Late-night can influence perceptions: “Sarah Palin didn’t say she could see Russia from her house. It was Tina Fey playing her on ‘SNL.’ But you can’t unring a bell.”
Macks acknowledges late-night’s impact has waned. “When it was just Johnny or Jay and Dave, the influence was bigger. There were fewer voices,” he says. “The truth is, no host can change an election—they’re often preaching to the choir.”
He thinks current shows are more one-sided and political: “That’s not a bad thing, it just ‘is.’”
After writing for the 1995 Emmys, his first award show, Macks got more calls, including from Billy Crystal for the 1997 Oscars. “That was like being called to pitch in the World Series,” Macks says. “I remember realizing right before the curtain went up, something I had written was going to be seen around the world.”
Macks loves live shows: “It’s the same adrenaline rush as election day for a campaign manager. You have to be prepared and ready to react any moment for a needed change.”
Controversies, such as #OscarsSoWhite, can change the direction of the opening.
“We had planned a hip, show business-type monologue,” recalls Macks. “Once we saw the nominations, Chris Rock [host of the 2016 Oscars] and the writers knew we had to address the bigger issue.”
Tragedies, too, affect the tenor of a monologue. “After 9/11, Jay spoke from the heart,” Macks said. “Days after, we stayed away from the tragedy itself but addressed peripheral topics, like Tom Ridge and his duct tape.”
Macks’ Wild Bronco Productions offers a variety of writing services. He has written remarks for clients from well-known athletes to Hollywood superstars. He continues to advise U.S. senators and presidential candidates and has assisted on debate prep in the last six presidential elections.
What does his family think of his success? “My dad was proud. My mother kept telling people I was a lawyer. My wife was happier when I was traveling. My kids are still fighting over who gets my money when I die.” Badum-Ching!
For more, visit: PBS.org/A-Capitol-Fourth and WildBroncoProductions.com.