(Carolyn Kaster / AP)

Once again, the president showed off his comedic timing with remarks at the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night. He starred in a hilarious mock-Hollywood interview of Obama playing Daniel Day-Lewis playing Obama in a Steven Spielberg-directed biopic. He delivered some classic one-liners: "I'm not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be." And he even managed a joke about his wife's hair at his own expense—no small feat for any man.

The beneficiaries of the annual Washington event, at least officially, might be the students who win the scholarships the dinner raises money to fund and the journalists who cover the presidency who win the awards handed out. Unofficially, meanwhile, what was once an opportunity for media types to build rapport with the administration and other politicians has morphed into a celebrity-studded showcase (too much so, in the eyes of some) that's purpose is simply to make its attendees feel important, critics say.

Still, the president gets something out of it, too. The annual event gives him the chance to stay ahead of his critics, letting the media and the public know how self-aware he is of his flubs and foibles.  In a quip about how MSNBC "used to work for David Axelrod," Obama made it clear he knows his relationship with the press is seen as cozy. He turned criticism about his unwillingness to glad-hand and schmooze with Republicans in Congress into a joke, asking the audience, "Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?" And a president thought to be a basketball nut even made a crack about his recent embarrassing 2-for-22 series of bricks on the court.

But for this president, in particular, the jokes at the White House Correspondents' Dinner at his own expense are especially effective. His comic timing and big smile don't hurt, of course. But for a chief executive widely criticized as being aloof, professorial, cool and insular, the so-called "nerd prom," ironically, can have a big impact. It warms him up, humanizes him and helps to chip away at the Ivory-Tower persona he still carries around no matter how many skeet-shooting photos get released or beer summits there may be.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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