Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the hottest meal ticket in town — but no one goes for the food. There are more important matters to attend to at the annual schmoozefest: Like, is that Rick Santorum gawking at Lindsay Lohan? And did the leader of the free world just discuss his underwear? Since Express has never had a seat at the table (crazy, right?), we can’t say firsthand what it’s like inside that Hilton ballroom. But after scouring nearly 90 years of newspaper coverage, we’ve figured out what it takes to pull off the perfect Nerd Prom.
First course: Presidential pomp
Ever since Calvin Coolidge hit the Arlington Hotel in 1924, it’s been said that every sitting president has attended the dinner at least once — some with more success than others.
Have a quick wit: The president hasn’t always done a stand-up act, but he usually cracks a joke or two. Even Ronald Reagan, recovering from an assassination attempt in 1981, had ’em laughing when he phoned in words of wisdom: “When somebody tells you to get in a car quick, do it.” Bill Clinton would get better over the years, but in 1994, he rambled on about the media’s fixation on his underwear preference, leaving his audience underwhelmed. Barack Obama earned laughs in 2011 when he said he was going to release his official birth video to quash conspiracy theories — and then showed a clip from “The Lion King.”
Be self-deprecating: Presidents get the best response when they poke fun at themselves. Think Reagan making fun of his age (the doctors “carbon-date me”), Clinton vaguely referencing his scandals, and George W. Bush mocking his word-pronunciation pratfalls.
Take pot-shots, carefully: You expect the president to make fun of the media and his nemeses, but generic jokes (not personal jabs) are usually better received. In 1993, Clinton took shots at Rush Limbaugh and Republican Sen. Bob Dole — and the aftermath was ugly. He took a broader approach in 1998 when he suggested that “Seinfeld,” which was nearing its end, could be replaced by televised congressional sessions. “Now there’s a show about nothing,” he said.
2014 outlook: Obama seems to get funnier with each dinner. This year, he has plenty of potential political fodder — and something tells us the word “selfie” might come up.
Second course: Comic relief
The featured comedian has a tough job: Be funny, but don’t upstage the president. Be funny, but don’t go all “Colbert” on the guest of honor.
Be funny: In 2004, Jay Leno targeted George W.’s re-election campaign while also reminding us how Bush got the job: “John Kerry stands by his claim that some foreign leaders have told him they hope he wins. And, of course, President Bush said, ‘Yeah, well, certain Supreme Court justices have told me I’m going to win.’ ” In 1991, Sinbad took a tamer route when he poked fun at George H.W. Bush. “He can’t fish! You’re the president of the United States. … They should have the Navy SEALs out there. Put something on the hook for the man!”
Be relevant: Russian émigré humorist Yakov Smirnoff took the stage in 1988 amid the Cold War: There are a lot of great things about America, he mused, “like warning shots.” In 1992, Paula Poundstone referenced the prior year’s Clarence Thomas hearings when she told Bush Sr. that she knew he was out of touch when he said he was sorry the American people had to be exposed to such rough language: “Sir, I don’t want to bum you out, but that’s why the American people watched the Thomas hearings.”
Know your audience: Comedian Danny Thomas spewed a slew of sexist jokes in 1975 — on a night when journalist Helen Thomas (no relation) was installed as the association’s first female president. In 2006, Stephen Colbert drew unending backlash after a speech that took harsh jabs at George W. And Wanda Sykes was booed in 2009 after suggesting that Rush Limbaugh “was the 20th hijacker, but he was so strung out on Oxycontin, he missed his flight.”
2014 outlook: While we’re not sure how much political knowledge E! Entertainment’s Joel McHale has, there’s no denying he’s a funny guy.
Third course: Celebrity garnish
Having celebs at the dinner isn’t a new phenomenon (Ethel Merman was there in 1936). But it’s definitely taken over this Beltway event — so much so that it doesn’t seem fair to call it the “Nerd Prom” anymore.
Invite someone to talk about: The tongue-wagging took off in 1987 when, amid the Iran-Contra scandal, Oliver North’s attractive secretary Fawn Hall showed up. (Gasped Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia: “That poor woman! Does she know what she’s … in for? Raw meat!”) The next year, model Donna Rice — whose affair with Gary Hart dashed his presidential dreams — was the head-turner du jour. In 1998, Paula Jones, fresh off her sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton, brought scandal back to the ballroom.
Make a cultural footprint: In 1997, not long after coming out, Ellen DeGeneres used the event to reveal new girlfriend Anne Heche. Reality TV stars started showing up in 2001, and one couple in particular — Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne — caused a stir in 2002. The frenzy left Sharon baffled: “I don’t quite get it. … Why should anyone give a [bleep] about us?” Obama somewhat echoed that sentiment in 2012: “I have the nuclear codes. What am I doing telling knock-knock jokes to Kim Kardashian?”
Have a political connection: It’s hard to be irritated by all the Hollywood hoopla when guests have links to This Town. The casts of “The West Wing,” “House of Cards,” “Veep” and “Scandal” always feel right at home.
2014 outlook: Two words: Lupita Nyong’o. Hollywood’s It Girl, fresh off her Oscar win, is quite the catch. But the correspondents’ association says it’s trying to pull back on the glam this year, and the early guest list seems to reflect a more dignified group. (Though word has it some “Duck Dynasty” cast members are on that list.)
Fourth course: Media hat-tips
It’s called the correspondents’ dinner because it was created by journalists. So some references to them is encouraged, even though a growing number have been boycotting the dinner. (Tom Brokaw said the last straw for him was the 2012 attendance of Lindsay Lohan — though presidential candidate Rick Santorum, seen snapping the starlet’s picture, didn’t seem to mind.)
Go ahead, jab: Reagan, addressing the media in 1982: “You don’t know how happy we are to see all of you here tonight, because while you’re here, you can’t be listening to all those unnamed authoritative sources in the White House,” he deadpanned. In 2010, Obama said that while he had done much to revive the economy, there was nothing he could do for the media. “I’m not a miracle worker.” The following year, comedian Seth Meyers made reference to the changing media landscape: “The New York Times’ [after party] used to be free, but apparently there’s a cover now,” he said referencing the paper’s new paywall. “So like everyone else, I will probably go to the Huffington Post party.”
But tread carefully: The media didn’t take too kindly to Colbert’s speech in 2006 and, therefore, barely covered it. In one joke, he urged journalists to “write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction!”
Honor the craft: In 2003, George W. spent a good portion of his speech honoring two journalists who died that year while covering the war: David Bloom and Michael Kelly. “Both men brought great credit to a hardworking profession,” Bush said.
2014 outlook: This year may actually be the most media-focused dinner in a long time. It’s the 100-year anniversary of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and a History Channel documentary on the group is expected.
Dessert: Something special
No, we’re not talking about E! live-streaming the dinner’s red carpet like last year. We said special.
Offer a personal touch: In 1927, entertainers sang original songs highlighting moments in Coolidge’s presidency, even mentioning the mechanical horse he liked to ride in his White House bedroom. In 1954, Irving Berlin serenaded Dwight D. Eisenhower with an original song. At Clinton’s last dinner as president, he played a video spoofing his final days in office (chasing Hillary’s limo with a bag lunch, watching his laundry dry). In 2005, Laura Bush drew headlines for her jabs at George. “At 9 p.m., Mr. Excitement here is asleep and I’m watching ‘Desperate Housewives.’ Ladies and gentlemen, I’m a desperate housewife!”
Provide a taste of the real world: In 1946, as conservation methods swept the country, Harry Truman and guests ate a new wheat-saving “dark bread.” In 1958, as a recession gag, combs and tissue paper were placed on tables, and guests were “encouraged to make their own music to save on expenses.” In 1974 — with Richard Nixon naturally absent and Watergate buzzwords on everyone’s minds — a telegram from correspondents off covering the president was read, relaying “Mr. Nixon’s warmest ‘inaudible’ and his sincerest ‘unintelligible.’”
Be unique: George W. got laughs in 2006 when he brought out comedian Steve Bridges, who did an on-point impersonation. Last year, a “House of Cards” parody showed Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) stockpiling tickets to the dinner and deciding where everyone got to sit. (Said Sen. John McCain: “As long as you don’t put Pelosi at our table. She keeps trying to friend me on Facebook.”)
2014 outlook: Sue us, but we can’t help but hope for another “House of Cards” parody.