Thursday’s Al Smith Memorial Dinner offered America the opportunity to take a desperate breath from the trash swamp America’s been drowning in for the last year and a half. It delivered, but then again, 45 minutes of footage of a stranger yelling would have been more enjoyable than most of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Al Smith, the white-tie event’s namesake, was the first Catholic to run for president, and the multi-thousand dollar-per-plate ticket price supports Catholic charity work. For reasons that might seem opaque to the casual observer, this particular charity event features almost every four years the two major-party presidential candidates delivering jokes from behind a podium. It’s the world’s fanciest open mic.
What’s the difference between an open-mic comic and Donald Trump? One spends hours every week spitting idiotic lines in front of an audience of hopeless losers in hopes that they’ll gain fame, and the other is a comedian.
The Republican nominee for president hit some high notes, like the plagiarism joke about wife Melania’s Republican National Convention speech, which was cribbed in part from a speech Michelle Obama had given. But then he gestured to his wife, ordering her to stand up while the crowd cheered, a bizarre break in momentum. He further lost the crowd with a joke about Hillary Clinton hating Catholics that was met with boos. Then came another one about Donna Brazile sharing all of the jokes from the dinner in advance. More boos. Then one about Hillary Clinton destroying Haitian villages, which was borderline inscrutable and met with silence. If Trump is half as effective at bombing ISIS as he is at bombing stand-up routines, he’s ready to be commander in chief.
Clinton was better, at least, as she’s likely friends with more people who can write jokes from the perspective of a person who hasn’t spent the last five years locked in a bunker reading Breitbart. But she had her own set of clunkers, like when she stumbled over a joke about how Trump would declare the dinner rigged if it didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to (too soon!). Clinton also had her gentle church party ha-ha moments, where she told a proper setup-punchline joke mildly at the expense of another party in the room. But, as in the debates, she was at her best and most likable when she was at her most brutal: When she said Trump would rate the Statue of Liberty on the one-to-10 scale or when she joked that Rudy Giuliani started his career going after rich people who avoided paying taxes and now goes on Fox News praising them.
But the most genius part of her time behind the mic Thursday night wasn’t her prepared jokes at all. It was the indirect evisceration she unleashed during the last few minutes of her time onstage, or what fans of Paris Is Burning might call shade. Shade—words meant to shame or demean an individual without explicitly naming that individual—has been lacking in this campaign, characterized as it has been by insult and hyperbole. And Clinton closed out her Al Smith Memorial Dinner portion with a series of float-like-a-butterfly blows that Trump didn’t even realize were hitting him until he’d already been knocked out.
She mentioned that many people at the dinner were descended from immigrants, alluding to Trump’s draconian immigration stance. She mentioned nutty conspiracy theories floated by the fearful during Al Smith’s presidential campaign, an indirect nod to Trump’s affinity for Infowars-style delusion. She brought up Pope Francis, whom she cited as a role model to wild applause. Trump, what feels like a lifetime ago, got into a very public feud with Pope Francis. She brought up climate change, another issue on which Trump doesn’t vibe with the church. She said America should strive to “build bridges, not walls,” a direct reference to Trump’s “build the wall” mantra. “Our greatest monument on this earth won’t be what we build,” she said, “but the lives we touch.” As the kids would say: savage.
Ultimately, in a political season that long ago crossed from “fresh” to “ironically fun” to “an ordeal,” the dinner offered little respite. It was like glancing out the window of the dentist’s office while getting a root canal and noticing a mediocre rainbow.
But perhaps the Clinton joke that landed the hardest was when she informed the crowd that Election Day was almost here, that this is all almost over. There was no punchline, but there didn’t need to be. The joke’s on us.