The annual White House Correspondents Dinner has typically been a kind of gentle roast. As a guest of honor, the president is pleasantly chided by a comedian and chides back at the Washington media. There is a lot of self-deprecation and teasing. Roasts are fun. But there is a very important rule about roasts: they only work if the guy being roasted is there.
Much of the charm and humor of a roast comes from the fact that the roasted has agreed to the whole thing, and happily laughs along at the insults. President Donald Trump, unlike his predecessors, chose not to participate. Some support the decision, saying the whole thing is tasteless insiderism; others oppose it as another needless thumb in the media’s eye from the commander in chief.
But it doesn’t really matter. That’s because if someone doesn’t agree to be roasted, you don’t roast them. Hasan Minjah’s suicide bombing as the event’s MC was a predictable and preventable attack on comedy. By the time his “Not see, Steve Bannon, Nazi, Steve Bannon” bit flopped like a crooked middleweight, it was clear that the awkward had become the embarrassing.
Nothing Is Transgressive About Tired Headlines
Part of the problem with the Bannon Nazi joke and the Jeff Sessions “N-word” joke and the “Trump is a Russian puppet” jokes is that they don’t sound much more extreme than what the Washington press corps believes and reports. Jokes are jokes because they are humorous exaggerations that shed light on reality. Minhaj was basically listing a bunch of Salon and Huffington Post headlines.
To make matters worse, Minhaj completely whiffed on the biggest elephant in the room. He was talking to a group of journalists who largely got the 2016 election as wrong as anyone has gotten anything wrong in the history of wrongness. Failing to hammer home on that is like roasting the ’86 Red Sox and leaving out Bill Buckner.
The final result of the evening was that a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity established to protect some of the most powerful voices in media hired a comedian to slay the president while calling them brave heroes who are being persecuted. It’s not a good look. In fact, it looks a lot like the “Not The White House Correspondents Dinner” that Samantha Bee was running across town for some reason.
People Like Me
Bee also decided to put on a show that roasted the president without him being present. She was at least decent enough not to do it under the auspices of a supposedly non-political, nonprofit corporation. In a recent interview with CNN, she was quite clear about who her brand of comedy is intended for: “I do the show for me and for people like me, and I don’t care how the rest of the world sees it quite frankly. That’s great. We make a show for ourselves. We put it out to the world. We birth it and then the world receives it however they want to receive it.”
This is a derisive way to engage in political discourse, which Bee is clearly doing. But much like Teen Vogue, which progressives have vaulted into the stratosphere of serious journalism lately, Bee has no serious set of standards. Her bland shtick is “I’m right, they’re wrong,” accompanied by some snarky sass.
Bee’s style of the corporate shilling against the evils of Trump is all fine and good. She’ll make a few bucks, people who hate Trump will laugh, and most people will ignore it. The problem is that her “Not The Whitehouse Correspondents Dinner” looked so much like the actual White House Correspondents Dinner.
The Age Before Snark
The White House Correspondents Dinner doesn’t need a comedy show. In fact, the two speakers who preceded Minhaj, who aren’t comedians but got about as many laughs, set a much better tone for the evening. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein both gave remarks that should have had a chilling effect on the assembled jour arati.
Once again recounting their tales of Watergate glory, they both stressed the importance of seeing a story through and letting it take you where it goes, not the other way around. Bernstein said that in 50 years he never had a story he reported land the way he thought it would. Woodward warned against making a big potential claim of wrongdoing before the reporting was fully done.
Compare that to today’s news outlets, which jump on every Russia interference in the election story by presenting the worst possible scenario. It’s a parade of “what ifs” fueling the bizarre fantasies of people who are still surprised Trump wasn’t impeached in the first 100 days.
Drop The Yucks
Assuming President Trump continues to refuse to participate in the White House Correspondents Dinner, the event should just drop the comedy. Honor important people, give awards, drink, eat relatively high-end hotel fare, and call it a night.
In his song of the same name, Morrissey wrote, “that joke isn’t funny anymore, it’s too close to home and it’s too near the bone.” That is true of the WHCD at this point. It’s no longer playful jokes. It’s the people who are supposed to give us the facts laughing at presidential advisers being called Nazis. We need a lot less of that.
Meanwhile, President Trump held another of his storied rallies in the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was trolling the fancy events in Washington DC in no uncertain terms. Both he and Minhaj where playing to friendly crowds. The difference, as usual, was that Trump killed.