This is a subdued year for all things White House Correspondents’ Dinner — even the spin-off events.
The official WHCD, traditionally hosted by a comedian and attended by the president, will be addressed by Ron Chernow, historian and author of the book upon which Hamilton is based. (Though the case has been made that it was a WHCD address that inspired Donald Trump to run for president, now that he is president, he refuses to show up.)
And Full Frontal host Samantha Bee’s Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which two years ago was as hot a ticket as the official affair, complete with a swanky after-party atop the W hotel, was a muted, toned-down endeavor: No after-party, plenty of empty seats at D.A.R. Constitution Hall, and a tiny swatch of hot pink turf where a full-length red carpet used to be.
Bee emerged, announcing that she was horrified to discover that the White House Correspondents’ Association failed to stand by 2018’s invited comedian, Michelle Wolf, when her satire offended the never-not-offended members of the Trump administration.
The most enraged was Sarah Huckabee Sanders: Wolf cracked a joke about Sanders lying, and because this joke included a comment about Sanders’ impeccable eyeshadow application, Sanders et. al. accused Wolf of making fun of Sanders’ appearance.
This strategy, which was absurd — is it not more pressing that the White House press secretary lies to the American people? No? We’re just going to let that one go? Sure! — was, alas, effective. Trump tweeted his disapproval, demanding that the dinner be rebooted from scratch.
Rather than see those tweets as a sign that they were doing something right — afflict the comfortable, etc. — the WHCA caved, issuing an apology for failing to adequately “honor civility.”
Major Garrett, a CBS News correspondent and WHCA former board member, told Politico last year that changing the evening’s entertainment away from comedy had been in discussion for years, but conceded that the result would likely be “a slightly more boring dinner.”
Seeing that no one would be roasting Trump at the 2019 WHCD, Bee valiantly volunteered her team as tribute. “No one should ever do what the president tweets at them,” she said. The WHCA says they care about “strong and robust” coverage of the presidency, but clearly, she said, they’re not strong or robust enough to insist the president be able to take a joke.
“Tonight, we are holding the dinner that they should be having,” Bee said. “Tonight we are hosting the nerd prom.” She added: “Given how many of you have been laid off recently, we also want to feed you.”
From this righteous start, though, was a night that succeeded only in fits and starts, an honorable effort to celebrate the free press and raise money for the Committee to Protect Journalists that was only sporadically funny.
Though Bee was ostensibly holding the dinner to do what the WHCA failed to do and mock the president, the event’s strongest segments were about journalists, not the administration they cover. Bee performed an R&B-style ode to “journalists doing a deep dive” (“I like it AP, Chicago, or doggy style”), surrounded by back-up dancers in Spotlight khakis. Later, she did a musical parody of My Fair Lady’s “The Rain in Spain,” featuring Brandon Victor Dixon, sending up the linguistic nonsense language of “racially-charged” shootings and “racially-tinged” Trump tweets by imploring everyone to learn the phrase, “The racist did racism, which was racist.”
But much of the night lacked real energy or verve. Even celebrity cameos — every liberal’s favorite white men, Bradley Whitford and Robert DeNiro! — didn’t bring much to the room. SNL’s Taran Killam appeared as “Xan Larson,” a “conservative comedian,” and maybe that was one layer of irony too many (a liberal playing a conservative cracking jokes about liberals) but his bit failed to connect.
And when it came to mockery of the president, Bee and her team landed firmly in clapter territory — the portmanteau coined by Seth Meyers during his Saturday Night Live days, for the kind of applause-laughter hybrid you get when you make a joke that everyone in the room agrees is accurate or fair — but not necessarily that they think is funny. (“It’s when you do a political joke and people go, ‘woo-hoo,’” Tina Fey explained back in 2008. “It means they sort of approve but didn’t really like it that much.”)
Bee knew Trump wouldn’t be watching her show — he’s got a rally scheduled for Saturday evening, when the telecast will air — but addressed him directly, “on the off-chance he’s watching our show tonight in case Tucker Carlson ran out of racism.” She wanted to do what the WHCA wouldn’t. “I really believe that the current president should have to face someone once a year who calls him on his bullshit.”
But what is there to say about Trump that she doesn’t already say every week, that her late-night competitors don’t say every evening, that everyone else isn’t saying on Twitter 24/7? Is it anything but clapter-bait to say things like “Trump is a fucking coward” and “Here are some people who are braver than you: Christine Blasey Ford”?
Her real message was not for Trump but for reporters. “Take heart,” she assured the media. “If Trump really wanted to ruin journalism, he’d put his name on it.”
Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner airs on TBS at 10:00 p.m. EST.