05.02.10

Obama Trounces Leno

The returns from the White House Correspondents' Dinner are in. Lloyd Grove on how the president thoroughly upstaged the king of late-night comedy at Washington's media prom. Plus, watch the nine best moments.

Obama killed. Leno died. Plus, watch the nine best moments.

Once again, the standup routines of Barack Obama and then Jay Leno at the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night demonstrated that the most dangerous job in comedy is following the president of the United States—especially when the latter has better writers.

And since all this took place in the City of Who’s-Up-Who’s-Down—in a claustrophobia-inducing hotel ballroom three levels below the street, suffused in a sickly blue light and crammed with 3,000 professional shmoozers—everybody was keeping score.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of the White House Dinner

“The only person whose ratings fell more than mine did last year is here. Great to see you, Jay!” Obama dinged the off-and-on Tonight show host, who, when his turn came on the podium at the Washington Hilton, proceeded to confirm just why that might be true.

Obama—aided (as presidential political guru David Axelrod acknowledged to me when the show was over) by the razor-sharp jokesters from The Daily Show—came armed with fresh and funny material that prompted some of the biggest laughs I’ve witnessed the Leader of the Free World receiving in more than two decades of attending this strange Washington media-political celebration of self-congratulation—a tribal (and, to outside observers, potentially unappealing) rite of spring in which supposedly discerning and skeptical journalists laugh their posteriors off and lavishly kiss the one belonging to the Comedian-in-Chief.

Even correcting for an undoubtedly unfair comedy advantage (in which any joke uttered by any president is automatically five notches funnier than the same one that slipped off the tongue of a mere mortal), Obama is a natural entertainer who has, among all the other things he has been doing in the past year, sharpened his comic timing and delivery.

Leno, while entirely competent, recycled and repurposed old material from his television show—and even made a mother-in-law joke. After one of his japes was greeted by eerie silence, it was hard not to feel a tinge of sympathy for him when he marveled desperately, “This is a tough room!”

But not for Obama, who pretty much scored on every shot. A few highlights:

• “It's been quite a year since I've spoken here last—lots of ups, lots of downs—except for my approval ratings, which have just gone down. ..But that's politics. It doesn’t bother me. Beside I happen to know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.

• “Obviously I'm most pleased that Michelle accompanied me. She doesn’t always go to these things. And there are few things in life that are harder to find and more important to keep than love—well, love and a birth certificate.

• “The Jonas Brothers are here ... Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But, boys, don't get any ideas. I have two words for you—Predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I'm joking.

• “I saw Michael Steele backstage when we were taking pictures—AKA Notorious GOP. Michael, who knows what truly plagues America today—taxation without representin’. My brother.

• “I've learned this year politics can be a tough business, but there are times where you just can't help but laugh. You know what really tickles me? Eric Massa. Apparently Massa claimed that Rahm came up to him one day in the House locker room, stark naked, started screaming obscenities at him. To which I say, welcome to my world.”

It didn’t help the situation for Leno that he showed up for his close up with a few similar jokes, such as one addressing Rahm Emanuel’s salty tongue and another on John Boehner’s orangey tan. At the Vanity Fair afterparty, Bill Maher told me that his pal Leno shouldn’t be judged too severely—“He was following the president; he did as well as anybody could in that situation.” But Dennis Quaid wasn’t buying it. “He’s a professional. That’s supposed to be his job. You can’t make excuses for him,” the actor said as a balmy breeze wafted over the crowded balcony at the French ambassador’s residence.

Thus the dinner—Washington’s version of performance art as bloodsport—capped a marathon of cocktail-fueled networking among politicians, policymakers, celebrities and media types that had gotten under way the evening before. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg had to suddenly leave his own party--which his financial information and news company co-hosted with Vanity Fair—and head back home after a bomb was discovered in Midtown Manhattan. I found him standing in the middle of Connecticut Avenue, getting ready to climb into an SUV and head for the airport. "What are you doing here?" I asked, unaware of the emergency. "Just enjoying myself," Bloomberg answered, poker-faced and giving away nothing.

Hardly anyone paid attention to a National Enquirer scooplet about an alleged Obama mistress from his 2004 Senate campaign. “It’s bullshit,” a top White House aide told me confidently, and staffers of the White House press office professed not even to be aware of it.

It seems that, after a scary dry spell of advertising declines, the media business is starting to pick up again: On Friday night, The New Yorker, Atlantic Media and People magazine all hosted extravagant parties, and there was an even greater proliferation of red carpets this weekend than in years past. At Saturday’s traditional pre-dinner brunch at television producer Tammy Haddad’s house—which used to be an intimate, almost homey, affair—working journalists were corralled in behind ropes in the driveway, and the crush in the back yard, under a scorching sun or sweltering tents, was so oppressive that one reveler asked me, “Don’t you think this weekend has jumped the shark?”

Maybe not the shark; possibly a whale.

UPDATE: Those jokesters from The Daily Show have been taking a bit of heat from various quarters today over The Daily Beast's report that they helped with President Obama's standup routine. A Comedy Central spokesman called to clarify that one, repeat one, veteran Daily Show comedy writer, Kevin Bleyer, was acting independently when he wrote jokes for the president. No word on whether Bleyer was working as a volunteer or a paid consultant.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.