The Washington Post

Why do comedians often bomb at Correspondents’ dinner?

US President Barack Obama and US comedian Joel McHale share a laugh at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Gala at a hotel in Washington, DC (EPA/Olivier Douliery)

Okay, maybe it’s different when for the first time in a couple of decades you’re watching the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on C-Span, rather than in the Hilton ballroom. But from the cheap seats we thought comedian Joel McHale pretty much bombed on Saturday night.

Sure, he had a few good shots at the press, and he’s not the first to go lame — nothing could have been worse than Rich Little back in 2007. But, overall, it was painful to watch.

One problem for comedians is that the president is always, far and away the star. No one will ever top Ronald Reagan. And who can forget Bill Clinton’s video (riding the bicycle, running after Hillary’s car with a sandwich), George W. Bush or Barack Obama (especially the hysterical send-up of Donald Trump’s birther goofiness, made only better by Trump’s presence in the room.)

Even Dana Carvey, known for his great impersonation of George H.W. Bush on”Saturday Night Live,” was excellent — but upstaged by Bush when the president did a spot-on impersonation of Carvey doing that routine.

Stephen Colbert’s roast of President Bush was surely the most memorable. Even if you take out those harsh hits considered by many to be way over the top, it was still hysterical.

It could be that Hollywood folks, or those not truly attuned to the politics and dynamics of this town, simply can’t satirize it — and shouldn’t try. They end up, as McHale did, reading from their notes.

For example, comedian Ray Romano, in 1998, faltered badly at the outset with some Washington-centric material, but he was great when he got into his usual stand up material about his kids and such.

McHale was said to have solicited guidance from several predecessors who had to close for a president. Admirable, but akin to checking with Jayson Werth or Bryce Harper about hitting a fast ball. You’re still going to whiff badly when the 95 mph heater comes at you.

Meanwhile, if we’re on the topic of celebrities “getting” Washington, we heard Robin Wright went on a nasty rant in the Hilton ladies’ room about my colleagues’ attempt to interview her, crowing about how she wouldn’t give any “straight answers” to “your girls,” and bragging that it was just “so funny” because they were “so mad.”

Maybe she was channeling Claire Underwood? Or maybe her icy television persona isn’t so far from reality.


Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.

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