Justin Mikita, Ariel Winter, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Mila Kunis and Wolf Blitzer at last year’s WHCA dinner. Ferguson is one of the many celebs returning for Saturday’s event. (Larry Busacca/Getty for Time Warner )

The joke about the celebrity-studded White House Correspondents’ Association dinner used to be that showbiz luminaries would gladly show up once — and then never again. Maybe after they realized they’d been roped into a 3,000-guest banquet at the Washington Hilton, not the White House. Or the feeling of being in a petting zoo, besieged for photos by throngs of D.C. reporters.

Something’s changed, though, because the roster of Hollywood types expected at the annual dinner Saturday looks awfully familiar.

Elizabeth Banks at the " Hunger Games" premiere in L.A. last month. (MARIO ANZUONI/Reuters)

It’s a huge shift from the days when celebrities first popped up at what was a strictly media-political affair — and there was some kind of news rationale for the star picks: Zeitgeist figures like Marla Maples (1990), Ozzie Osbourne (2002), or Ellen Degeneres with her first out-in-public girlfriend, Anne Heche (1997).

View Photo Gallery: He’s back! George Clooney at the White House last month. Clooney along with other celebrity guests are expected to descend upon Washington this Saturday.

Now media organizations seem to gravitate toward safer picks — actors from hit shows (“30 Rock,” “Modern Family,” etc.) popular with, well, middle-aged media types; stars (like Legend, Clooney, Dawson) attached to do-gooder causes — all the better to impress the corporate honchos and politicians sharing the tables. Julie Mason, a longtime WHCA board member, told us that some news bosses will spot a favorite star at someone else’s table and then track them down the following year for their own.

But it’s clear, too, that as the dinner has become a hotter ticket, celebrities are more than willing to return. “Some guests are quite aggressive in asking for invites, and their people will sort of shop them around to various hosting news organizations,” said Mason, a national talk show host on SiriusXM radio.

Some showbiz folks even contact the WHCA directly seeking tickets– as well as stating their particular demands for transportation, hotels, entourage, etc. “That’s always a good laugh,” Mason said.

Reese Witherspoon promoting “This Means War" in Seoul on Feb. 23. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

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