If Hillary Clinton had been sworn in as the 45th president of the United States just over a week ago, there is no doubt that comedian Samantha Bee would be at the very top of the list to perform at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C. this April.
Instead, President Donald Trump is entering his second full week in the White House and the past two weekends have been dominated by national protests against his agenda. His press secretary is complaining to the press that his boss feels “demoralized.” And his chief strategist thinks the media should “keep its mouth shut.”
How bad will relations between the Trump administration and their so-called “opposition party” be by the time this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner rolls around? And will President Trump really allow a comedian to roast him on live television?
With all of this in mind, Samantha Bee, host of TBS’ Full Frontal, announced on Monday that she will host an alternative event to the official one in Washington D.C. this spring. "Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner,” as it is being called, will be held on April 29th, the same night the White House Correspondents’ Association has told members to “save the date” for its event.
"The evening is sure to bring plenty of surprises, music, food, and laughter—and if you're not careful you just might learn something. Specifically, you'll learn how screwed we'd be without a free press,” Bee said in a statement about the event, which will serve as a benefit for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "We're really doing this. This is not a joke,” she added.
In a conference call with reporters Monday morning, Bee confirmed that she has never been invited to host an official White House Correspondents’ Dinner and did not anticipate that she would be getting an invite this year given the nature of her comedy about President Trump.
The morning after the election, Bee and her showrunner Jo Miller were sitting around the Full Frontal offices wondering aloud whether or not the event will still go forward under Trump. “This is such an unprecedented time, who knows what form the event would take, if it even happens,” Bee said. “We thought, almost simultaneously, that we should do our own.”
Even though she “didn’t really think about” the idea of hosting the event under a President Hillary Clinton, Bee joked, “I did have my gown all picked out.”
“However, things didn’t work out as planned on several different levels,” Bee continued. “So this somehow feels even more glorious.” Using the Twitter nickname for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Bee said, “It’s basically going to be a prom for nerds not invited to #NerdProm.”
As for the official dinner, Miller added, “It will either be called off or it will probably be the most sinister, awkward event ever.”
President Trump, who has never been amused by his comic portrayal on Saturday Night Live, has a complicated and contentious relationship with the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The 2011 event, hosted by Seth Meyers, is often characterized as Trump’s presidential origin story. Instead of gamely laughing at the jokes about his birther crusade and reality TV career, Trump sat motionless and stone-faced in the audience.
Among the jokes that seemed to get under Trump’s thin skin the most was this one from Meyers: "Donald Trump has been saying he'll run for president as a Republican, which is surprising, because I just thought he was running as a joke." In his speech, President Obama ridiculed Trump’s “credentials and breadth of experience” as host of The Celebrity Apprentice.
Writing in The New York Times in March of last year, after Trump had won a number of Republican primaries, Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns singled out the “humiliation” he felt as the jokes rained down from both Meyers and Obama as a pivotal point in his decision to run for president.
“That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world,” they wrote. “And it captured the degree to which Mr. Trump’s campaign is driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.”
Asked by his former speechwriters on the Pod Save America podcast if they should feel responsible for giving the world President Trump, Barack Obama admitted that it was a “funny night” but also said he thinks “we give ourselves too much credit” to say one night of comedy galvanized Trump to take his presidential run more seriously.
“He had churned up that whole birther thing prior to that night, which was one of the reasons why it was funny,” Obama added, saying that Trump clearly “had his sights on something” long before he became a punchline at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
It was just one month earlier that Trump subjected himself to being the target at the Comedy Central Roast, where he had similarly refused to laugh at himself. In fact, he insisted that jokes about his personal wealth and the square footage of his home be rewritten to make him sound more impressive.
When the writers sent him a draft of jokes that he would perform at the end of the roast, Trump bizarrely crossed out a number of the punchlines. As one of the writers said later, eliminating punchlines represents “a classic lack of an understanding of how a joke works.”
More recently, Americans got the chance to see how Trump handles a comedy setting when he appeared alongside Hillary Clinton at the Al Smith Dinner just before the election. Then-candidate Trump drew boos from the crowd when he abandoned the joke format altogether and began openly attacking his opponent for “pretending not to hate Catholics.”
Is there any reason to believe he will be in better spirits at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner now that he’s president? If his “sore winner” attitude thus far is any indication, Trump will be no more willing to laugh at himself and muster the energy to tell a self-deprecating joke three months from now.
“No one likes to deliver a monologue more than he does,” Bee posited to reporters. “So I assume he’ll be quite happy to stand up there and deliver it. Whether people find it funny or not is a different matter entirely.”
As far as which comedian the White House Correspondents’ Association will choose to roast Trump, they could end up going a number of ways. After Stephen Colbert delivered an unprecedentedly rough takedown of President George W. Bush to his face in 2006, the event swung in the opposite direction the following year by welcoming old-school impressionist Rich Little. Last year, Larry Wilmore shocked many in the room by affectionately calling President Obama “my nigga.”
If Trump is looking for a comedian who will go easy on him, the most obvious choice might be Jimmy Fallon, who has never hosted the event. (His Tonight Show predecessor Jay Leno performed under three different presidents.)
“If history were a guide, I would look to that night before the inauguration to maybe get an idea of the level of excellence that we might see,” Miller said, referencing the welcome concert on the Washington Mall that included acts like Toby Keith and 3 Doors Down. “Is Rich Little still free?” she wondered.
Over the years, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has been criticized for fostering a too-cozy and even unethical relationship between the press and the president. But as Trump’s war on the free press ensues, those fears seem almost quaint by comparison.
With their alternative event, Bee maintained that the focus will be on “fun” and “joy” amidst all the unnerving news to come out of the president’s early days. “We are looking for all opportunities to put gas back in the tank and this really just gives us something to look forward to,” she said.