Michelle Wolf did not mince words when the White House Correspondents’ Association announced on Monday that they would not be hiring a comedian to roast the president and the press at its annual dinner in Washington next year.
As the most recent comic to host the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, it would be hard for Wolf not to take the move personally. It was her jokes about how Sarah Huckabee Sanders “burns facts” to make that perfect “smoky eye” along with her remark to the press secretary, “I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale,” that prompted weeks of faux-outrage from Trumpland.
Now, in an apparent attempt to make the dinner more “boring,” the WHCA has tapped Alexander Hamilton biographer and historian Ron Chernow to follow in the footsteps of Wolf, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and others. Comedians are not amused.
“Sad day for jokes,” The Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. tells The Daily Beast. “I would call the people who made this decision a bunch of snowflakes, but then we’d just be called snowflakes for calling them snowflakes.”
“I’m sure Ron Chernow will deliver an amazing speech, but I’m sure a lot of us in the comedy community hope he bombs,” Wood adds. “Every comedian hopes that the person replacing them bombs. Ron’s no different. It’s nothing personal. It’s just comedy.”
While comedians are happy to denounce the decision, which comes on the same day the administration issued new restrictive guidelines for White House press conferences, Wood says he doubts anyone in the media will speak out about it because they value “presidential access” more than “an evening of jokes.”
This was apparent immediately following Wolf’s performance last April when reporters like The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell admonished the comic for supposedly making fun of Sanders’ appearance. “All these jokes were about her despicable behavior,” Wolf fired back at Haberman. “Sounds like you have some thoughts about her looks though?”
Amidst the backlash earlier this year, comedian Cameron Esposito applauded Wolf on Twitter, writing, “Oh the luxury of being offended by good jokes told by someone w/ no political power… Instead of the daily idiocy spouted by a man looting the country from within the White House.” When I reached out for her reaction to the WHCA decision on Monday, she sent back one word: “Cowards.”
For Hari Kondabolu, the stand-up comic and filmmaker behind The Problem with Apu, the move is “another reminder that comedy can be a very powerful and effective voice of dissent.” As strong a statement as Chernow might make in his speech about the value of the First Amendment, that more “powerful and effective voice” will be sorely missing.
In a tweet, W. Kamau Bell, Kondabolu’s former podcast co-host and current host of CNN’s United Shades of America, suggested that perhaps the organization was having trouble booking a comedian after what happened with Wolf last year. “Yes. Because after the way the WHCA & many journalists talked about Michelle Wolf, it was official that no comedian worth a damn would take this gig,” he wrote.
Once it became clear that Trump would not be appearing at what would have been his first White House Correspondents’ Dinner as president in 2017, speculation started to brew that Anthony Atamanuik, who plays him to brilliant effect on Comedy Central’s The President Show, might take his place—much to Alec Baldwin’s chagrin. But alas, a stunt like that would have been far bolder than even inviting a comic as ruthless as Wolf.
“I think that political comedy and humor, in general, have been a casualty of cable news culture and the general sensitivities of the White House, the press and the resistance,” Atamanuik tells me in response to the WHCA’s full-on rejection of comedy. “People forget that there is a corridor of political satire to walk down during the most serious of times.”
While Trump’s fragile ego could not handle the prospect of a public roasting, Barack Obama attended every year of his presidency, cracking jokes alongside comedians like Wanda Sykes, Jimmy Kimmel and Larry Wilmore, even when the dinner fell on the same weekend that his administration was conducting the raid that killed Osama bin Laden—a bit too late in Trump’s assessment.
For several of those years, speechwriter Jon Lovett—now of Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It fame—helped write the jokes that Obama would effortlessly deliver, often upstaging the professional comic on the bill.
“The best comedians at that dinner use humor to tell the truth,” Lovett tells me. “Sometimes that makes people uncomfortable, but hey, we’re all having fun. Sometimes, like Stephen Colbert during the Bush administration or Michelle Wolf last year, comedians were told they ‘went too far’ but usually that just means, ‘the truth made us feel worse than we expected.’”
Colbert’s appearance, which came toward the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, was infamously received horribly in the room, but lives on as the epitome of speaking truth to the face of power. Just one year into his run as host of The Colbert Report, the host used his mock conservative pundit character to blow a giant hole in Bush’s tough-guy persona.
Similarly, Wolf’s jokes about Sanders hit a nerve because her target was sitting on the dais. Without the president there in person, Wolf, and Hasan Minhaj before her, had no chance at landing the same satirical impact on Trump. The one time Trump did attend the dinner in 2011, his silent brooding as Obama and Meyers mocked what they thought was his fruitless bid for the presidency spoke volumes—and may have encouraged him to prove them wrong.
“Right now the dinner even existing is a form of denial,” Lovett says. “It’s a zombie custom for a zombie relationship with a zombie White House out of respect for zombie norms our zombie president doesn’t give a shit about. And a comedian (a good one) would cut through all that, but that’s no fun! Who wants to feel shame on Washington’s biggest night?!”