“This is a zombie White House Correspondents’ Dinner for a zombie institution to protect zombie norms during a zombie presidency.”
That quote more or less sums up Jon Lovett’s take on what was once Washington D.C.’s biggest night and has now become a shadow of itself, first after President Donald Trump refused to attend and even more so now after the White House Correspondents’ Association declined to hire a comedian to perform.
Lovett, who hosts the weekly Lovett or Leave It podcast for his company Crooked Media, knows more about this annual event than just about anyone. During his four years in the White House, he spearheaded the team that wrote jokes for President Obama, who could deliver a punchline just as well or better than the professional comedians who were forced to follow him.
“I was proud to get to work on those speeches,” Lovett tells me on the latest episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “President Obama, who is too good-looking and charming to be as funny as he is—it’s very frustrating, he should be worse at it.” He thinks no one did a better job following Obama than Seth Meyers, who infamously roasted Trump to his face at the 2011 dinner so brutally that some believe it drove him to finally run for president for real in 2016.
Lovett and I talked about all this and a lot more during our hour-long sit-down at the same Crooked Media studio where he, Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor record Pod Save America every Monday. The morning after we spoke, Trump confirmed that he would be skipping the Correspondents’ Dinner for the third consecutive year, telling reporters that it’s “too negative” and he likes “positive things.”
Why it’s impossible to ‘laugh with’ Donald Trump
“I do think it becomes a vulgar and ugly display when you are looking past monumental and evil sins on the part of the president. I think that is true when George W. Bush is joking about weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq War, I think that is true when you have someone like Donald Trump who is making a mockery of the office, destroying institutions, pursuing racist, supremacist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policies, lying on a daily basis, attacking the press corps on a daily basis. So before Donald Trump said he wasn’t going to this thing anymore, I thought it was hard to imagine having the dinner like they always had it. Because, how can you sit there and laugh with these people?”
On Trump’s decision to bail on the dinner
“I don’t think the comedian-not comedian distinction is very important to them. They like bashing the press, so he can say, ‘All these reporters are gathered but I’m here with you.’ It’s something that has been a fantasy option for Democratic and Republican presidents for a long time, this idea that you just say, ‘I’m not going to that dinner, I’m going to the people.’ Why not make a moment of it? Don’t go to that fancy dinner, go to a rally and say you’re not going. Make an anti-elite, anti-Washington moment of it. But they finally did it. And I think it’s partly because he wants to bash the press and partly because he has thin skin.”
On Michelle Wolf’s controversial set from 2018
“I think she gave these people the hard-edged humor that doesn’t come close to the level of vitriol, misinformation and hatred that they have directed at—not just powerful opponents, but powerless people. I think what she did was probably close to the line, that’s where she was supposed to be. And by the way, when you’re a comedian and your job is to try to get close to the line and really push these people, there’s a chance you may step over it. Who gives a shit? So what? It’s a joke. They’re so hurt? Give me a fucking break. These are people who work for Donald Trump, who help Donald Trump every single day, who mocks people and is not joking, who is not trying to make people laugh, who is not doing it to make light, who isn’t doing it to hold people accountable. He’s doing it to hurt people’s feelings and make people feel small and turn his supporters against them and keep his supporters from feeling compassion for some of the least among us.”
On the ‘heartbreaking’ resignation of Al Franken
“It was devastating to me when that was going on, because truly I looked up to Al Franken. I really admired the way he transitioned from comedy into politics. I believed he was one of the most valuable Democratic voices in the Senate. It was heartbreaking for me how that unfolded. Not because Al Franken was railroaded, but because Al Franken put himself in a situation where he decided he had to resign. I think there are a lot of people who have unfairly attacked Senator Gillibrand about this, saying, ‘How could you do that to Al Franken?’ What did she do? She looked at the facts as we knew them at the time and as we still know them and said I think this person should resign.”
Is Jon Lovett a comedian?
“You know, it’s funny, when I was a speechwriter and then a screenwriter, I always had trouble saying, ‘I’m a writer.’ There’s something about ‘I’m a writer’ where if you weren’t sitting at a typewriter writing novels, I always felt like I was posing. And I aspired to be a comic at one point in my life and was doing open mics and was doing bringer shows in New York and getting friends to come to comedy clubs so that I could have a few minutes on stage because it was something that I aspired to. And even though a lot of what I get to do on Lovett or Leave It is comedic and I look like a comedian a lot of the time, there’s something about saying ‘I’m a comedian’ that, I just don’t feel like I get to say it. I don’t know why, that may speak to more of my own Jewish anxieties.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Former Daily Show field producer and host of Adult Swim’s Soft Focus, Jena Friedman.