For years, people have been deriding the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as a bloated symbol of everything wrong with Washington, a place where war criminals can joke about war crimes to an appreciative audience of wealthy celebrities. But this year’s a little different: Trump decided not to attend the official event (The Daily Show’s Hasan Minhaj more or less aced it anyway) and Samantha Bee threw her own “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” with her own jokes, her own celebrities, and, at least in one segment, her own president. Bee, whose celebrity guests included Allison Janney, Will Ferrell, and Jake Tapper, managed to capture some of the glitz and glamor of the genuine article, which is not a compliment.
The problem became clear in the show’s cold open, a taped segment in which Allison Janney reprised her West Wing role as press secretary C.J. Cregg, fielding questions from dubiously credentialed Trump correspondents about the event:
“Is she trying to undermine the legitimacy of both the press and the president?” one reporter asks. “No, Ms. Bee is trying to undermine the legitimacy of just one of these two things,” Janney answers, to cheers from the crowd. There’s a good joke here about the “journalists” Sean Spicer takes questions from—one reporter says he’s from The Boldfaced Red Font Email Alert for America’s Uncles, while another writes for Protocols of the Elders of Zion—but correctly labeling that crew, as Janney does, as “a morally bankrupt gang of racist bloggers, anarchists, Dominionists and rancid women haters,” is no excuse for preemptively marking the assembled journalists off limits. (Although the shoutouts to Slate’s Trumpcast and Jamelle Bouie’s article this week about Trump’s insecurity were appreciated.) When Bee did turn her attention to journalism in the Trump era—and if you don’t think the fourth estate failed, remember we’re now in something called “the Trump era”—she did it in a way that left the impression that everyone at CNN was being forced against his or her will to implement Jeff Zucker’s vision of politics-as-soap-opera. It’s easy to forget—especially this week—but “not taking the money” is always an option.
The lowlight is a Man in the High Castle-inspired pre-taped bit where George Takei gives Bee a samizdat film of Hillary Clinton’s presidency in an alternate universe, including the White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech given by one Samantha Bee. Want a Photoshopped image of Hillary Clinton in the oval office, flanked by a group of advisors including Maxine Waters, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren? You’ll find it here, but like all liberal fan fiction, it’s not good for you. On the other hand, if you want a Photoshopped image of Kellyanne Conway and a passed-out Steve Bannon hosting a Trump TV show called This Morning Belongs to Us with Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, you’ll also find it here—it’s liberal fan fiction too, but at least it’s a joke. The strange thing is Bee and her writers clearly understand what makes for a good White House Press Correspondents’ dinner, as demonstrated by this vicious, hilarious bit showing her bombing at dinners for presidents going back to Wilson:
Here’s a great FDR joke from that segment: “Groucho Marx, Jack Benny and George Burns all wanted to host tonight, but as the president proved with the SS St. Louis, he just loves saying no to Jews!” A Truman joke: “Knock knock. Who’s there? Not Nagasaki!” A Reagan one: “The president says the most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ That’s funny, I thought they were ‘You have AIDS and the government doesn’t care.” Those jokes are all funny because they’re true—the kind of secret truths comedians can articulate while journalists are bound by objectivity and taste. Also true, and hardly a secret: the joke in the Nixon WHCD where Bee calls Henry Kissinger a war criminal, which makes the hagiography for Kissinger pal Hillary Clinton all the weirder. But it’s not just a question of tone: Fantasizing over how great a Hillary Clinton presidency would be is just as much of a waste as fantasizing over how great an Al Gore presidency would be (or, for that matter, fantasizing over how great a Barack Obama presidency would be). The problem is the power, not the person who wields it.
Here’s the rest of the show: