The problem with the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner is that it looks and feels so choreographed. The sign outside the venue might as well state the obvious saying, “This is a humorous event. So be humorous.” For humor to be effective and great it has to be unplanned. Watching it unfold on television at the WHCA event, one gets the sense that the guests have been told beforehand, “Go laugh and get it over with.”
Humor is not a ritual. It has to be integral to life. While it can always be staged, it works best if it is generated organically. Although more often than not the quality of one-liners, barbs and zingers at this dinner are genuinely funny on merit, the problem is that the two people who deliver them, the incumbent president and a hired comic performer, often come across as if they are running through a list of jokes. Last night’s dinner was not that different with President Barack Obama and actor-comic Joel McHale, both of whom did their assigned jobs efficiently. But that is where the rub lies. They were assigned to do that and they did so. Within that limited criticism, I think perhaps the best line of the evening—and if choosing the best line means anything at all—came from McHale. While joking about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s possible rise as the next president, McHale said, “Hillary Clinton has a lot going for her as a candidate. She has experience, she’s a natural leader. And as our first female president, we could pay her 30% less! That’s a saving this country could use. Who’s with me??"
From the president’s side perhaps the best jibe came when he said this about CNN: "I am happy to be here even though I am a little jet-lagged from my trip to Malaysia. The lengths we have to go to get CNN coverage these days." For those of you sensible enough not to watch CNN these days, let me just say that for the past several weeks the network has been so obsessed with the story about the search for the Malaysian flight MH 370 that sometimes its reporters have to report refreshing their smartphones as breaking news. I call it the best jibe because this is a night about the media and the media has to be at the receiving end of withering humor.
McHale, who is mostly an entertainment-focused comedian, is likely to gain some heft from his generally effective performance at the high visibility dinner. He slipped in his trademark humor on evidence on his highly popular show The Soup when he joked about the Kardashians who he said are Republicans “because they are always trying to screw black people.” On balance, McHale’s performance was rather commendable. My only problem with it was that the format of the dinner is such that the performer always sounds as if he or she is going through a checklist of jokes rather than being effortlessly funny. Within that straightjacket, I think McHale delivered way better than Conan O’Brien last year. For me personally, the best bit from McHale was this one: While pointing out the American people’s famous nearly anal fixation about TV spoilers McHale said,: “In other countries, spoilers mean, ‘Hey, I haven’t been back to the village for a while. Don’t tell me who died in the drone strike.’ Sorry about that.”