How to Revive a Roast

An open letter to the scribes who organized last Saturday’s White House Correspondents Dinner:

Given your recent public relations wreck, these words are a little late. There may still be time to save next year’s dinner, however, and preserve a venerable institution that serves a valuable purpose. Your annual dinner helps deflate overblown egos, an area of Washington life where leaks are desperately needed. So, in hopes of helping you pick up the pieces, here’s some free advice about roasts, based on my 30 years in the speechwriting business.

First, your keynote roaster was not the problem. The problem was your clueless dinner committee. Somehow they persuaded themselves that unleashing Michelle Wolf on the fold would be a good idea. Maybe the committee was hoping to punish the president for leaving his correspondents at the altar. If so, they should have known that stand-up comics with modest abilities and no personal links to the complex culture of Washington do not speak “truth to power.” Instead, they invariably take the low road to laughs by speaking insults to invited guests.

Second, you forgot that political roasts are mock combat, not the real thing. They are gladiator games in which swords should never touch flesh. At a political roast, punchlines should only sting momentarily. Scars that are still visible in the morning are marks of abused power.

The primary bond between roaster and roastee should be affection, not contempt. Comedian Jeff Ross only roasts people he loves. Yes, the Hollywood/show business version of the roast format allows for obscene humor and the joys of going too far. But the political version does not. Political roasts may be a blood sport, but that red stuff around the podium is special effects. If real blood hits the walls, the roast will turn into a horror show.

Third, roasts are not the place to settle political feuds. Stop telling yourselves it’s okay to use a traditional event to score points against a president you despise. You’re just giving him more reasons for not liking or trusting you. The president is draining a swamp that provides rich hunting grounds for countless reptiles and, understandably, you and the other crocs resent it. In the meantime, much of the American press has transformed itself into a de facto political party, which competes with the president for power. All this gnashing of teeth, however, is the potential material for a terrific evening, provided both sides can be civil to people with whom they disagree.

As hosts and sponsors of the dinner, the first step toward a great evening in 2019 is yours. Begin by putting aside thoughts of revenge on those awful people in the White House who are ruining America, etc.. Remember your own contributions to the decline and fall of objective journalism, while keeping in mind that successful roasts always end in a draw.

In other words, stop worrying about zapping Trump and his tribe and start worrying about basics. Under any conditions, roasts are tough to produce. I’ve written for at least two dozen of them and it’s dangerous work. Writing one good line can take hours. Writing an original joke is almost as hard as writing an original song. Finding the thin line between funny and offensive is tricky, and potentially fatal. Never use a zinger you’re not sure about.

A few more tips: the quickest way to ruin a roast is to reopen old wounds, or to mock dearly held beliefs. Don’t invite guests to sit on the dais and then ridicule their failings or their physical appearance. They have placed themselves under your protection. They may feel pain, but eventually, you will feel shame. Avoid trouble by hitting targets where they’re strongest. Throw your hardest punches at iron jaws.

In spite of the recent fiasco, you have a fairly good chance of getting Trump to attend next year’s roast. For public figures, the only thing worse than being lampooned is being ignored, and that includes presidents. Wearing your “Make America Funny Again” cap, let the president know you’re aware that all may be fair in love and war, but not in roasts. So check the roasters’ material. The dinner is a scripted occasion, not a free-for-all. No one has a right to turn a private dinner into a travesty.   

Your most difficult job will be finding keynote roasters who have satirical talent, experience with roasts, and a sense of restraint. Remember what happened last week and avoid trendy amateurs with tin ears. Avoid roasters who think they’re above the fray. Everything works better when the guy throwing the pie gets splattered, too.

Your biggest assets in the effort to revive the White House Correspondents Dinner are videotapes of roasters from earlier years. Take a fresh look at how Laura Bush stole the show in 2005. Gently shoving the president away from the podium, Mrs. Bush called herself a “desperate housewife” and her husband “Mr. Excitement.” Glancing at her watch, she said: “He’s usually asleep by this time.” She then took potshots at an even more formidable figure, her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush (“she’s like . . . Don Corleone”). It was a tour de force and a textbook lesson in how to roast a POTUS, and his entire clan, too.  

Finally, while researching classic roasts, you may come across Bob Hope zinging Ronald Reagan in 1988. Hope, all-time master of the art (“Never play football with the Kennedy family. Roughing the passer is a federal rap”), was at his best with Reagan, to whom he said, “I appreciate the nice things you’ve said about me . . . even if I’m not Russian.”

That line will probably still be good next year.

About Clark Whelton

Clark Whelton was a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani. He is a frequent contributor to City Journal.

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