Democracy Dies in Darkness

Reliable Source

Michelle Wolf wasn’t the first to shock a media dinner. Stephen Colbert and Wanda Sykes, anyone?

April 30, 2018 at 3:51 PM

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Michelle Wolf is defending her White House correspondents' dinner routine. Here's how other comics have reflected on their controversial acts. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

If something feels just a little familiar in all the outrage/counter-outrage/disappointment/soul-searching reaction to comedian Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, there’s a good reason for that.

Folks, we’ve clutched these very same pearls before. Several other comedians in the not-so-distant past have scandalized the well-dressed folks gathered in Washington to hear them. Serious Washington meets Comedy, and things don’t go so well? Hey, we’ve seen that show before! Here’s a brief look at some of the other meant-to-be-funny monologues that didn’t leave all of the Beltway crowd laughing.

The dinner: The 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner

The comedian(s): Seth Meyers was the professional ringer; President Barack Obama did the traditional presidential roasting.

The jokes: No one knew it at the time, but Meyers’s and Obama’s punchlines directed at Donald Trump — who was that night a guest of The Washington Post and was then not much more than a noted Obama “birther” and the host of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice”  — would prove (possibly) history-shaping. A popular theory is that Trump was so enraged by the humiliation that his decision to run for president, as if to show the political establishment that he should be taken seriously, was sealed that night.

“Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican,” Meyers said. “Which is surprising, since I just assumed that he was running as a joke.”

Obama said: “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. That’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like: Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?

“All kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience,” Obama said. “Just recently in an episode of ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around, but you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership, and so, ultimately, you didn’t blame Little John or Meat Loaf — you fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled.”

The dinner: The 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner

The comedian: Wanda Sykes

The jokes: Sykes drew gasps for this burn on Rush Limbaugh — the radio talk-show host had said he hoped Obama failed, which she equated to saying he hoped America fails: “I think Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker. But he was just so strung out on OxyContin he missed his flight.” (Predictably, conservatives were outraged by that one, but even White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was unamused. “I think there are a lot of topics that are better left for serious reflection rather than comedy,” he sniffed. “I think there’s no doubt that 9/11 is part of that.”

On first lady Michelle Obama possibly breaking protocol when she dared to briefly touch Queen Elizabeth II: “You over there patting the queen on the back like she just slid into home plate.”

On Sarah Palin, who was invited to the dinner but backed out: “She pulled out at the last minute. Someone should tell her that’s not how you practice abstinence.”

On Dick Cheney: “Oh, my God, that’s a scary man. Scares me to death. I tell my kids if two cars pull up, and one has a stranger and the other car has Dick Cheney, you get in the car with the stranger.”

The dinner: The 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner

The comedian: Stephen Colbert, who at the time had recently begun hosting “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central and delivered his monologue in the same schticky conservative TV pundit persona he used on his show.

The jokes: On President George W. Bush: “I stand by this man, because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”

On interviewing the Rev. Jesse Jackson, though the actual punchline is about climate change: “You can ask him anything, but he’s going to say what he wants, at the pace that he wants. It’s like boxing a glacier. Enjoy that metaphor, by the way, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is.”

Colbert also savaged news media representatives for acting more like stenographers than journalists: “Over the last five years, you people were so good, over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming,” he said. “We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.”

The dinner: The 1996 Radio & TV Correspondents Dinner, where President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton were seated at the dais — all the better for the C-SPAN cameras to capture their so-not-amused expressions.

The comedian: Radio shock jock Don Imus

The jokes: After joking about finding a folder containing Hillary Clinton’s Whitewater diaries and a bit about the first lady inflating her billable hours, he joked about the president’s alleged infidelities, describing how the president had once helped announce a Baltimore Orioles game. “We all heard the president holler, ‘Go, baby!’ and I remember commenting at the time, ‘I bet that’s not the first time he’d said that,’ ” apparently making a sexual innuendo.

Imus also poked fun at ABC News anchor Peter Jennings: “You wonder what’s under his desk — besides an intern. The first place they should put a V-chip is in his shorts.”

Referring to the waning days of CBS News’s unsuccessful co-hosting stint featuring Dan Rather and Connie Chung, he said he expected to witness a scene like that in a newsreel clip from the Vietnam War in which a Viet Cong POW was executed. “Everyone in this room knows that Dan Rather is capable of anything, including pulling a gun out on the set of the ‘CBS Evening News.’ ”

And of Sen. Joe Biden: “Watching the progress of his plug job is like looking at time-lapse photography of a Chia Pet.”

Like Saturday’s Wolf situation, organizers of the 1996 dinner were well aware of their performer’s comedic style. Imus was known for his crude patois and ruthless takedowns of politicians. So the dinner hosts knew (or should have known) exactly who they had invited, making their later protestations ring a little hypocritical.

Read more:

A bunch of other weird stuff happened at the White House correspondents’ dinner, too

The harshest jokes from Michelle Wolf’s correspondents’ dinner speech

At the White House correspondents’ dinner, the buzz was reduced to a snore — until Michelle Wolf showed up


Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.

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