By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007
The White House press corps last week found itself embroiled in controversy -- a controversy over its efforts to avoid controversy at an event whose guests include President Bush.
Stung by criticism that comedian Stephen Colbert went too far last year in his remarks at the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner, the group announced last week that it had lined up a different kind of entertainer for its next dinner on April 21: impersonator Rich Little.
The choice elicited two general reactions: Who? And why?
While the name is probably unfamiliar to people under 40, Little was a popular Las Vegas performer and guest star on TV variety shows of the 1960s and 1970s. He's best known for impressions of celebrities (Johnny Carson, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny) and presidents (Nixon and Reagan) who are no longer with us.
But "edgy" Little isn't. Even in his heyday, he didn't do biting topical satire or searing political humor. As a performer, he's more "Ed Sullivan" than "Daily Show."
Which is why, according to Little, he was hired in the first place. "One of the reasons they picked me is because I'm not controversial," he said yesterday from his home in Las Vegas. "They did get some flak about the guy they had last year. I don't think they wanted someone political or controversial again."
Yet after Colbert made waves -- he compared the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster, among other things -- some wondered whether choosing Little indicated that the rough, tough White House press corps was going soft, ensuring that its honored guests from the White House would suffer not even the slightest slight.
That's more or less how MSNBC host Keith Olbermann read it; he nominated the entire correspondents' association as his "Worst Person in the World" on his program last week.
Little, 68, disavows comments attributed to him in the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week that seemed to suggest he had been told by the press group to go easy on the president and that he "wouldn't even mention the word 'Iraq' " at the dinner. "No one ever put restrictions on what I can do or say," Little said. "I wouldn't mention Iraq because there's nothing funny about it."
Nevertheless, Little's published comments put the WHCA on the defensive. The group's president, C-SPAN's Steve Scully, issued a statement saying: "The White House Correspondents' Association never dictates or censors the content of a press dinner entertainer's act . . . My advice to [Little's agency] when we booked [him] in December was to follow the time-honored Washington motto [of] the Gridiron Dinner: 'Singe, but never burn.' "
On the other hand, Scully said in an interview, the group does want to avoid "an Imus moment," a reference to radio talk-show host Don Imus's monologue at the 1996 Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner, in which Imus rankled some of the assembled with off-color cracks about President Clinton's extramarital behavior.
"I loved Colbert and thought he was outstanding," Scully said, "but some people don't get his brand of humor. Do you want to invite someone to a party and make them into a political piñata? That's not the purpose of the dinner. It's for [journalists] and their sources and contacts to have an enjoyable evening. That's what we're trying to do."
Scully said his group sought David Letterman, Jay Leno, Billy Crystal and Martin Short as performers for this year's dinner, but none was interested. Scully turned to Little after seeing him perform on Letterman's TV show in November. He accepted the gig, which Scully said pays "in the low five figures."
But even a nice paycheck doesn't make playing black-tie Washington worthwhile, says Lewis Black, comedian and "Daily Show" regular. "What they want at those events are [politically correct] jokes, and P.C. jokes just aren't funny," said Black, who grew up in Silver Spring. "You spend the rest of the year making fun of these people, and when you come to Washington, you have to turn your act into a series of innocuous knock-knock jokes. It's just painful."
When he performed at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner in 2005, Black said, he edited all of his usual material, even avoiding saying "nipple" in reference to the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" incident. He also thought it was inappropriate to use the word "laid" in the punch line of a joke about his high school prom, which had been held in the same Hilton Washington ballroom as the dinner.
As for Little's being hired this year by the White House Correspondents' Association, Black said: "It's like going from Jackson Pollock to paint-by-numbers. God love Rich Little, but he's not in this decade. He's in no position to pose any threat to anyone. He makes Bob Hope look like Lenny Bruce. It's sad that we've reached this point" with comedy as political expression.
Another reason to scrap the dinner altogether, suggests Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review. After the Colbert controversy last year, and an earlier one in which Bush joked about not finding weapons of mass destruction, Rieder wrote that such press-politico events reflect the "smugness" and arrogance of the news media, suggesting that they are "part of a wealthy elite, completely out of touch with ordinary Americans."
The hiring of "a controversy-free" Little underscores the point, he says: "Do we really need a neon sign to proclaim the coziness of the White House press corps and the White House's occupant? It's really hard for me to understand making a decision like this, particularly so close to the WMD debacle. The dinner must go."