Curtains for Comedy

By | 2019-04-25T16:13:21-07:00 April 25th, 2019|
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Comedy used to be funny.

Then Donald Trump was elected president. And comedy not only stopped being funny, it became a sinister arm of #TheResistance.

After two years the laughter isn’t what it used to be, but the jokes stayed the same.

In show business that means it’s time to get new material. Which is what the planning committee for Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner must have realized.

Even if they can’t tell fake news from the real thing, they could see the comics they hired were bombing and, worse than that, they were doing a better job of wrecking the credibility of the news media than their worst reporters.

Olivier Knox, president of the WHCA, and his colleagues knew they had to do something to put their profession in a better light than it deserves. So they canned comedy for this year’s annual dinner and booked historian Ron Chernow “to celebrate the First Amendment.”

Knox hopes Chernow, author of a bestselling biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the hip-hop Broadway musical, will be able to place the current “unusual moment in the context of American history.”

(Here “unusual” refers to Trump’s “abnormal” presidency, not to the way White House reporters cover it.)

Chernow says he’s “never been mistaken for a stand-up comedian,” but if he elevates the evening too much, Carl Bernstein will be there.

What used to make the correspondents’ dinner worth going to or watching on YouTube the next day was the sheer hypocrisy of it, not to mention the new depths of tastelessness each year’s B-grade comics brought to the head table.

As for an “unusual moment,” who can forget former President Barack Obama’s 2011 routine, a spite-filled roasting of Trump, who was sitting in the audience that night.

Imagine the lasting impression that made. Now imagine the last laugh a new Spygate investigation may yield.

Maybe the WHCA was smart to take a break from comedy. With so many subjects out of bounds these days, telling any joke risks committing a hate crime, if the wrong person tells it.

In Washington the difference between acceptable and unacceptable humor is always complicated by political considerations. In recent years, though, there’s been a comedic shtick shift.

When comedy with a political edge became popular in the late 1950s, the establishment was conservative, and the best comedians—Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Woody Allen—were in the vanguard of the liberal counterculture.

Two generations later the political and cultural establishment is liberal. The counterculture is conservative. No wonder conservative comics such as Tim Allen and Adam Carolla never played the correspondents’ dinner, where most of the diners are establishment liberals.

Last year’s entertainment, provided by insult comic Michelle Wolf, was rude and disgusting, even by the association’s minimal standards. The dinner was supposed to offer a “unifying message,” said Margaret Talev, the group’s past president. Wolfe’s crude attack on women who worked in the Trump Administration, she said, “was not in the spirit of that mission.”

What made her think it would be? She’s a reporter. And aren’t reporters supposed to do their homework?

Oh, wait. That was before Donald Trump became president and the mainstream news media went into 24/7 Trump Removal Mode. Now the only fair game for ridicule in every comedy club, late-night monologue or celebrity venue like the correspondents’ dinner is Donald Trump.

Without the president in attendance for the third straight year—Trump will be holding a simultaneous rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin—the dinner will again be missing the object of everyone’s sputtering rage.

And each year Trump’s not there, the entertainment gets worse, the event is more boring and guess who steals the show.

Photo Credit: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

About the Author:

Bill Thomas
Bill Thomas is the author of Club Fed: Power, Money Sex and Violence on Capitol Hill as well as other books, and the co-author of Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia. He is also a former editor and writer with The Economist Group.