The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the White House correspondents’ dinner lost its sense of humor

Hundreds attend the White House correspondents' dinner in 2017, when the featured speaker was comedian Hasan Minhaj. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In the ballroom of the Washington Hilton on Saturday night, there will be tuxes hauled from the backs of closets and an entree with the texture of a dish sponge. There will be tipsy journalists and cocktail-party chatter.

But the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, an annual rite of spring that has blossomed since the 1920s as reliably as Washington’s cherry trees, will lack a few of its essential features. Most notably, the president: Donald Trump, for the third year straight, turned down the invitation by the reporters who cover him, making him the first commander in chief since Ronald Reagan to not attend, who missed the event because he had been shot weeks before.

There won’t be celebrities, either. The fizzy, too-beautiful Hollywood imports who have leavened the wonky crowd for decades have mostly stayed away from the dinner since Trump took office.

The last element of the dinner’s creaky traditions to be stripped away this weekend? Laughter.

The dinner has long featured a professional comedian slinging jokes about the assembled journalists, administration types and the president. The president usually takes to the dais to give as good as he gets, roasting the journalists who cover him and inflicting a few self-deprecating zingers.

SiriusXM chief Washington correspondent Olivier Knox, as the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, was the one in charge of selecting this year’s entertainment. And he fully takes the blame — or credit, depending on one’s perspective — for dulling the dinner down. “I felt that the dinner needed a reset,” he said, explaining his choice for the evening’s keynote — not a hot stand-up act or “Saturday Night Live” cast member, but esteemed historian and biographer Ron Chernow, whose claim to pop-culture relevance is his 800-plus-page biography of Alexander Hamilton that was the basis for the hip-hop Broadway juggernaut “Hamilton.”

Knox, like many of the members of the organization that puts on the annual dinner, wanted to do away with its celebrification and return the event to its original, albeit unsexy, roots. “It had gotten to the point where you were more likely to run into a sitcom star than a sound engineer,” he said.

Thanks, Mr. President, for making Washington’s glitziest dinner as dull as it should be.

Fresh in the minds of the White House reporters who put on the event, of course, is the controversy over last year’s comedian, former “Daily Show” correspondent Michelle Wolf, whose edgy routine proved polarizing. Of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who attended the dinner and sat at the head table in the stead of her boss, Wolf cracked, “She burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” and later likened the Trump spokeswoman to an “Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women.”

Trump, predictably, mean-tweeted about the speech (“the so-called comedian really ‘bombed,’” he wrote.) Even some reporters recoiled, with then-WHCA president Margaret Talev distancing the association from Wolf’s material, calling it “not in the spirit” of the evening in a letter to members. Media brass — meaning the publishers who actually bankroll the event and the scholarships it raises money for by buying tables — bristled, with the heads of news organizations including Politico and The Washington Post urging board members to scrap the tradition of having a comedian.

Here's what you missed from comedian Michelle Wolf's routine at the 2018 White House correspondents' dinner. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post, Photo: AARON P. BERNSTEIN/The Washington Post)

And the Wolf controversy might not have been a one-off: Many observers say that comedy in the context of the media dinner is tough to pull off in an era where political humor is weaponized and even laughing can feel like a partisan act.

“The expectations by the political elite about what political humor is have changed,” said Jody Baumgartner, a professor at East Carolina University who teaches a course about political humor. “You’d have to bring in someone who is willing to punch really, really hard or else it would fall flat.”

He notes that modern political humor draws more from the tradition of former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who combines liberal activism with his punchlines, than the gentle ribbing of late-night comics like Johnny Carson or even David Letterman, whose aim was to elicit laughs rather than advance policies. “Humorists now see themselves as political activists,” Baumgartner said.

“I always thought that Jon Stewart killed the correspondents’ dinner,” said Steve Clemons, the editor at large for The Hill newspaper and a veteran of more dinners than he can count. “Because after him, there was an edginess in comedy in the dinner . . . and it all became really politically charged.”

The president’s absence, too, has made the traditional joking around feel off-kilter. And it’s not just him — Trump has also reportedly told members of his administration to boycott Saturday’s event. Trump has played to his base on previous White House correspondents’ dinner nights, holding rallies well outside the Beltway for his faithful, which he plans to do again this year. That has acted as a sort of counterprogramming to the black-tie crowd assembled in Washington, tittering over jokes likening his administration to “Game of Thrones” or calling Trump the “liar in chief” (both digs from “Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minaj’s 2017 monologue).

Trump administration members to skip the White House correspondents’ dinner, too

And Trump, unlike former presidents, seems to lack a funny bone. Former FBI director James B. Comey has said in interviews that he never once saw the president laugh.

“A lot of what humor is about is showing weakness,” said Dan Glickman, the former agriculture secretary (and one-time winner of the “Funniest Celebrity in Washington” contest). “You’re saying what about you is funny or dopey, and he’s just incapable of that. He’s not funny. Many of his remarks are aiming daggers at other people — where he can be funny is at the expense of other people.”

Members of the media, too, aren’t in much of a laughing mood these days when it comes to jokes aimed at them, Clemons noted, pointing to attacks on the press by the administration, the public’s eroding faith in the Fourth Estate and violence against reporters around the globe. “We can be a bit thin-skinned, I don’t think the media has ever been targeted the way it has,” he said. “Journalism is on edge in terms of our role and place, and I don’t think we feel as secure as we used to.”

There have been exceptions to the dinner’s all-laughs-all-the-time menu. In 1999, against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the early onslaught of celebrity guests, the organizers attempted to “restore some dignity to the proceedings” by skipping the comedian in favor of a performance by soul queen Aretha Franklin.

That was a moment when comedy might have felt perilous in Washington. But unlike two decades ago, the feeling might not simply pass.

“It’s too bad,” Glickman said. “Because humor can be a great, unifying experience if it’s done the right way — but it’s hard to do that anymore.”

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