When Joel McHale attended his first White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the year was 2008. George W. Bush was still president, a few months away from leaving office. Pamela Anderson, “The Hills” stars Heidi Montag and Lauren Conrad, and the Jonas Brothers were among the celebrities sucking up the oxygen in the Washington Hilton ballroom. And the special guest charged with telling topical, edgy-but-not-too-offensive jokes — which, that year, targeted Donald Rumsfeld and the candidates battling for the Democratic presidential nomination — was Craig Ferguson.
“I was in the very last table against the wall and I could barely see anyone on the dais,” McHale recalled during a phone conversation last week. “If it wasn’t for the video monitors, it would have been like watching a football game from the 300-level. It was great, though. It was cool to be there and be in a room with the president.”
McHale will attend his second White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday, and this time, he should have no trouble seeing the dais. As the evening’s appointed entertainer — the guy tapped to tell his own edgy-but-not-too-offensive jokes — he’ll be seated directly on it, beside the first lady and a few chairs over from President Obama. It’s a position that, at least during the media’s immediate, post-dinner onslaught of Monday morning comedy quarterbacking, may shine a brighter national spotlight on McHale than he’s experienced before.
Devoted fans of NBC’s “Community” — on which McHale stars as the prone-to-speechifying community college study group leader Jeff Winger — certainly are familiar with his work, as are moviegoers who have seen the long-limbed, handsome actor play supporting roles in films such as “Ted” and “The Informant!” But it’s McHale’s decade-long stint as the host of E!’s “The Soup” — a weekly, snark-heavy riff on the firehose of inane moments regularly sprayed from reality TV, broadcast news and viral Internet videos — that has best prepared him to wade into the weird Correspondents’ Dinner melting pot of high-profile journalists, high-ranking politicos, notable athletes and Hollywood stars ranging in status from levels A to C. (A sample of a McHale current events joke from a recent episode of “The Soup”: “In sports news, swimmer Michael Phelps is coming out of retirement. When asked for comment, teammate Ryan Lochte accidentally stapled a bird to his face.”)
His “Soup” experience helped to vault McHale’s name into the mix during all the recent chatter about late-night talk show host replacements. With Stephen Colbert — whose satirical White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech tore the self-important, politically correct roof off the sucka in 2006 — lined up to take over for David Letterman when he retires next year, some TV critics and observers have advocated for McHale to assume the 12:30 a.m. CBS slot currently held by Ferguson, who announced this week that he’ll step down in December.
“Are you asking if I’m going to get a late-night show out of it?” McHale asks, half jokingly, when a reporter wonders out loud what a gig as Correspondents’ Dinner emcee might do for his career. For the record, McHale asked that question in a conversation that occurred before Ferguson announced he would leave his “Late Late Show.” For the additional record, McHale said this week in an interview with Howard Stern that even if he was offered a job at CBS, he couldn’t take it because he’s under contract with NBC to continue starring on “Community.” For the extra-additional record, while NBC still hasn’t announced plans to renew “Community,” McHale — who, along with his castmates, has been campaigning on Twitter for “Community” to get green-lighted for a sixth season and a subsequent movie — clearly wants that to happen.
“I’m just hoping that ‘Community’ comes back for a sixth season. That’s what I’m hoping for,” McHale says. “If [the Correspondents’ Dinner] will help, great!” He also says he’s happy to continue hosting “The Soup”: “I love it, it’s really fun, and they’ve been really accommodating with allowing me to do movies and to do ‘Community.’ ”
Historically, a gig at the Correspondents’ Dinner, the ultimate “This Town” event, hasn’t necessarily served as a clear-cut opportunity-generator for its performers. In recent years, most of the chosen talent — Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Ferguson — were already established TV hosts and personalities, so it’s difficult to gauge what impact, if any, some well-timed jokes about the Secret Service and the Huffington Post did to elevate their status.
Colbert, who had been portraying his conservative alter ego on “The Colbert Report” for only six months when he delivered his famously controversial, Bush-skewering speech, may have benefitted most from a post-Correspondents’ Dinner profile boost. But most of the time, lackluster performances can be shaken off. (Jay Leno wasn’t so great in 2010, and no one really cared.) Shocking remarks make headlines (see Wanda Sykes’s 2009 joke about Rush Limbaugh being the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker), but eventually fade from memory. Even the strong performances run the risk of being overshadowed by actual news, as Meyers’s was in 2011 when, the day after the dinner, Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. (Said Meyers of that moment during a recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross: “Of everybody in the country, upon hearing that bin Laden had been assassinated, I was the one guy who was like, ‘Aw, tonight? They got him tonight?’ ”)
Still, presiding over the event does have a certain allure, as the advice that McHale received from several of those previous hosts — including O’Brien, Meyers, Ferguson and Kimmel, with whom McHale shares a publicist — suggests.
“They all said the same thing,” McHale says. “It’s kind of the weirdest, most exhilarating gig of your life. . . . There’s not any other gig where you sit next to the first lady for two hours before you get up and perform, after the leader of the free world. It doesn’t happen.”
“Thank God, there are people who can make me look good, who can make me look intelligent,” McHale says. When he’s told that he comes across as intelligent, McHale, a master at the art of drippy sarcasm, fires back: “I work on the E! Network, so the jury’s out.”
A smart guy from E!, emceeing an event that’s regularly attended by Congressional leaders and Kardashians? Seriously, don’t worry, Joel. You’ll fit right in.
Chaney is a freelance writer.