Samantha Bee’s live “Full Frontal” event in Washington certainly was no White House correspondents’ dinner. There was no president, at least a sitting one, and there wasn’t really dinner (hors d’oeuvres, mostly).
But that’s what she promised with her “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” which taped hours before Saturday’s formal event across town and will air on TBS tonight at 10 p.m.
As attendees dressed in formal wear waited in the sweltering heat to get inside of DAR Constitution Hall, climate-change protesters were marching just blocks away on a parade to the White House.
Inside, Bee spent more than an hour paying homage to a free and functional press (“from the failing New York Times to the failing pile of garbage BuzzFeed” to ProPublica, which “sounds Mexican”); skewering sensational media practices; and evoking an alternate reality where Hillary Clinton is commander in chief and George W. Bush delivers President Trump takedowns.
Which is to say: Will Ferrell showed up as a surprise special guest to reprise his famed Dubya impersonation.
“How do you like me now?” he drawled to the roaring audience. “The prodigal son has returned. I don’t know what that means, but I know it’s positive. It’s very prodigal.”
Bee — who confessed to the audience this was the largest crowd she’s performed in front of — basically delivered a bigger, more elaborate and live version of her weekly show. The TBS host has found her place in the crowded late-night landscape with a scorched-earth, brutally comedic approach to politics, with Trump and his supporters as a primary target.
“I know it looks like we have a cash bar,” she joked, in one pointed reference, “but as I promised on the invitation, at a later date I will get Mexico to pay for your drinks.”
And in a gibe at the president’s media habits, she said Trump “has tweeted more about ‘Fox and Friends’ since being elected than he’s tweeted about Tiffany.”
Addressing journalists, Bee said that “as much as I love poking at the media, I know your job has never been harder: You basically get paid to stand in a cage while a geriatric orangutan gets to scream at you — it’s like a reverse zoo.”
There was a slew of celebrity guests: The singer Peaches performed, and George Takei and Patton Oswalt made cameos in pretaped segments, including one with Allison Janney reprising her “West Wing” role as a press secretary C.J. Cregg, berating right-wing writers.
Bee, in a Clinton-esque white pantsuit, also deployed some taped segments roasting former presidents, like Woodrow Wilson.
“I do not wish to say Mr. Wilson is a racist,” read a silent-film intertitle, “but during dinner tonight he cut eyeholes in the tablecloth.”
Bee didn’t hold back on cable news, blasting CNN President Jeff Zucker’s comments comparing politics to sports and imploring his cable network not to air “loyal partisan hacks who make us noticeable dumber.” Instead, Bee argued, unleash reporters like Anderson Cooper: “He’s a smart reporter. Give him his black T-shirt back and point him toward a natural disaster!”
But Ferrell provided the show’s biggest moment. “Quick presidential update: I’m doing quite well, thank you,” he said, as Bush. “History’s been kinder to me than many of you thought. For the longest time, I was considered the worst president of all time. That has changed — and it only took 100 days. I needed eight years, a catastrophic flood, a war built on a lie, an economic disaster. The new guy needed 100 days.”
Ferrell-as-Bush noted his relationship with the press had been strained, too. “You guys always sneaked up on me with gotcha questions like, ‘Why are we going to war? Gotcha!’ ‘Why did you not respond to Hurricane Katrina? Gotcha!’ ”
He added: “Wish someone had just told me that all you have to say is ‘fake news’ over and over again.”
Ticketed tables, purchased by media outlets, were filled with journalists, broadcast personalities and others, with proceeds said to benefit the Committee to Protect Journalists. Bee announced they raised nearly $200,000 and implored viewers at home to donate more.
At the end of the event, Bee asked the audience to pretend they were living in a different timeline. She then proceeded to roast President Hillary Clinton.
“I want everyone to know President Clinton is being served by the same server as the rest of you — she doesn’t have her own private server.”
Bee continued: “But she also raised eyebrows when she placed her son-in-law Marc Mezvinsky in charge of brokering peace in the Middle East — I’m kidding, how stupid would that be?”