A robot version of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. A sensual, slow-jam ode to the Gray Lady. Robert De Niro calling out the president as “a relentless and unrepentant, lying scumbag” to black-tie-wearing guests at banquet tables and the jean-clad attendees in stadium seats above.
This is the new normal in Washington, where the annual White House correspondents’ dinner has been so pared down that a late-night comedian has taken it upon herself to counterprogram her own affair.
At the Friday night taping of Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” which will air at 10 p.m. Saturday, the TBS host mercilessly roasted President Trump and thanked journalists “for holding the president and all of us accountable."
“Journalists put up with a lot with this administration,” she said. “But if Donald Trump really wanted to ruin journalism, he would have put his name on it."
For years, the correspondents’ dinner featured a comedian ribbing the president and journalists in the room, followed by the commander in chief joking back. But Trump has never attended. Last year’s set from comedian Michelle Wolf sparked outcry from White House officials and some journalists and was labeled by the White House Correspondents’ Association as not “unifying” and “not in the spirit” of the host organization’s mission.
So, the WHCA booked a historian, Ron Chernow, for Saturday’s dinner. Like other comedians, Bee was dismayed by the decision, saying from stage on Friday that “we are holding the dinner that they should be holding.”
“Our president tweeted the White House correspondents’ dinner should change, and they did it,” Bee added. “No one should ever do what the president tweets at them."
Bee herself has been caught in the White House’s crosshairs; last year, she apologized for using a vulgarity to describe Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump after condemnation from advertisers and the White House.
She also hosted a similar show in 2017, and has announced that proceeds from Friday’s ticketed event, as before, will benefit the Committee to Protect Journalists.
On Friday, Bee focused heavily on the media, opening with a pretaped “Alien” spoof, featuring Sigourney Weaver and journalists, about leaving Earth instead of enduring another election cycle. “I’d rather get another televised colonoscopy than cover the 2020 election,” Katie Couric said.
Bee also critiqued the media, using a song-and-dance number to call out the practice of labeling politicians’ actions as “racially charged,” rather than simply racist. A pretaped segment warned of “deepfakes,” or highly realistic, computer-generated videos; she scrubbed Bill Cosby’s face from “The Cosby Show” and created a fake Trump who said “I believe in climate change” and called the #MeToo movement “totally fabulous.”
Bee eventually did take to the dais to roast Trump as if he were there. “You are the most powerful man in the world and you can’t listen to a comedian razz you for five minutes?” Bee said, adding that Justin Bieber, who has sat for a roast before, is “braver than you, and he’s a man who once let a monkey go to jail for him.”
The hordes of celebrities who once descended on Washington for the annual weekend have diminished during the Trump years. On Friday, media personalities, activists and other vaguely recognizable people turned up at Bee’s event by invitation, cramming into DAR Constitution Hall for free drinks and to pose on a giant mock typewriter.
Actress Minnie Driver, in a floor-length white dress, held court by the bar before the show. Jordan Klepper (an alumnus of “The Daily Show”) posed for photos. Later, Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”) whisked through the lobby.
Onstage, Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”) gave out made-up media awards, and Robert De Niro struggled with the teleprompter before declaring he was there “to support the First Amendment, the right of the president to be a relentless, unrepentant scumbag” and “our right to do something about it.”
Then the actor became even more explicit in his political call to action. “If you really want to do more to protect journalists, help rid us of the scum who demonized them,” De Niro said. “Impeachment or not, there will be an election."
Yes, this most certainly was not the White House correspondents’ dinner.
“Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” (one hour) airs Saturday at 10 p.m. on TBS.