The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was Saturday night, the annual gala held in Washington, DC which is supposed to be like an annual mini-break from the often contentious relationships between journalists and the politicians they cover. This year, the event’s special remarks were made by Colin Jost, following remarks from President Joe Biden. The Correspondents’ Dinner is often referred to as “nerd prom”, a title which actually felt true in the early 2010s, at the height of the Obama years. It no longer rings true, because “prom” implies fun, and the Correspondents’ Dinner, which was arguably never really THAT fun, feels like a chore now more than ever. Like many things, the Trump years ruined it forever.


There were some notable Correspondents’ Dinners in the past, such as the 2006 event when Stephen Colbert, still entrenched in his Colbert Report persona of straight-faced satirizing right-wing politicians, confused the hell out of then-president George W. Bush. That is arguably the event that put the Correspondents’ Dinner on the wider pop culture map, because it was clear that night that the people in power—the people with the MOST power—simply weren’t in on the joke. It made people unhappy with Bush and his leadership feel smug and superior to be in on a joke the president didn’t get, and suddenly there was more attention paid to the “nerd prom” in case that ever happened again.

But it didn’t happen again, not least because the Obamas ushered in an era of real glamour in Washington. Like the Kennedys, they were young, good-looking, accomplished, they had cool friends. During the Obama years, the Correspondents’ Dinner became a hot ticket, because people actually wanted to be associated with their message of hope and change. The nerd prom really felt like a prom, all the cool kids hanging out, having fun at some party the rest of us weren’t invited to, but it sure looked like a good time. And President Obama knew the references, he got the jokes, we weren’t in on anything he wasn’t also in on, but he could take a jab as well as he could deliver one—and he could deliver them. 


The Correspondents’ dinner peaked in 2011, the infamous year that President Obama and Seth Meyers roasted Donald Trump, at the height of his racist “birther” movement, to his face. Many people, me included, believe that was the night Trump decided to run for president, because he couldn’t take being mocked by not just a president, but the Black president. (Seth Meyers did a good job that year, but let’s be honest, Trump was probably WAY more upset about a Black man mocking him than a white guy.) 2011 proved the Correspondents’ Dinner could have real-world consequences, except it never has had again. No one since has been so thin-skinned as to be driven to run for office because someone told a joke about them over rubbery hotel chicken.


And then in the Trump years, Trump cried off from the Correspondents’ Dinner, still traumatized from 2011, apparently, and unable to face even the mildest criticism presented in the best of humor. Now, in the Biden era, part of the return of normalcy is the president once again subjecting himself to the roasting of a comedian—usually someone from SNL, though not always—while also getting to take some potshots at the press for once. Biden absorbs it all with a grace common to every past president save one, even George W. Bush was a good sport about the Correspondents’ Dinner and didn’t skip it after a true roasting. 

This year, Colin Jost did fine, his best joke was about being the “second gentleman” in his relationship since he’s married to an A-list movie star. Scarlett Johansson was there, also graciously absorbing a number of jokes as one of the highest-profile targets in the room and looking very proud of Jost. I do not find them to be a compelling couple, but I do believe in their mutual appreciation society. Good for them.


As for the night itself, though, I wonder why even bother with this anymore. The glamour and energy of the Obama years is gone; while Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden are certainly accomplished, they are not young or glamourous. It no longer feels like a must-attend event, as evidenced by the crowd it drew. Sure, ScarJo was there, but she had to be. Besides her, the next biggest name in attendance was Chris Pine. Da’Vine Joy Randolph was also present, but while I like her a lot and she has a certain cache as an Oscar winner, let’s not pretend she’s a household name. Ditto for Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell, presumably there because as the stars of The Diplomat they are politics-adjacent, but also not household names (let’s be honest about Keri Russell—we love her but she’s “that gal” or “Felicity” to most people). A-listers were thin on the ground.

Similarly, Jost’s message fell flat for me. The bit about his late grandfather voting for Biden was sweet, and I understand the purpose of his “decency” spiel, that after the Trump years, highlighting basic damn decency is important, but…we’re on the brink of more Trump years. And I f-cking wish everyone would shut the hell up about Biden’s age, even in jest. I get it, it’s an obvious, easy joke, but at this point, we’re just equating his age with Trump’s actual criminal behavior. The problem with putting Biden age jokes in the same set as Trump trial jokes is that it makes both things seem the same. THEY’RE NOT. What IS the same is that Trump is old, too. That’s the only age joke to be made. If we MUST “both sides” this, then make jokes about Trump being old, too. Because he is.


But it’s the both sides-ing of politics, especially right now, that is killing me. This goes WAY back, for me it’s highlighted by the “giant douche vs turd sandwich” debate on South Park, but it’s probably older than that. But in my lifetime, I have seen the insistence on “both sides” erode politics and political understanding to the point that we could very well elect Donald Trump as a convicted felon to be president once again.


Jost tries to joke about this, by pointing out the topsy-turvy reality in which a “New York playboy” cost women reproductive rights, and an “80-year-old Catholic” is trying to restore them, but he doesn’t go NEARLY far enough. The joke isn’t “gosh, how crazy THIS is how it played out”, the joke is “and you, in the media, won’t report it that way”. But Jost only had kind words for the media, only making them the butt of the joke to point out that legacy media is effectively dead, something that has been abundantly clear for years, to the point that the print journalists in the room can actually laugh about it now. 

And again, I get it. After Michelle Wolf rained hell on the media during the 2018 Correspondents’ Dinner, they will NEVER set themselves up like that again. She threw down some great jokes at Trump’s expense, sure, but her sharpest material was aimed at all the women who supported him and advanced his policies, and she was absolutely right to lambast them, and the journalists themselves. She closed out by calling out the media, saying, I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. […] He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.


They got mad she “turned” on her fellow women, they got mad that she said “pussy” and “f-ck”, both words the president had used in the public sphere, they got mad that she was “crass” and “uncouth”, but let’s be real. It’s that bit right there that got them mad. She said what we all thought then and still think now—you f-cking love this guy because he’s good for ratings. The news was circling the drain in every format, and then HE came along and suddenly, your circulation went up, your ratings spiked, you had an influx of new viewers/readers, and you won’t do your jobs because you don’t want to give it up. And guess what happened? Biden became president, we could all detach from the daily information hellscape, their ratings went back down, and news is circling the drain again.

So we get Biden age jokes like him being old is the same thing as Trump being a f-cking corrupt maybe-felon, and journalists are so f-cking obsessed with the perception of fairness they don’t care about honesty at all. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is past its peak, but I’m over it anyway, because unless you’re going in there to wield a flamethrower like Michelle Wolf and hold journalists’ feet to the fire for pretending like a guy being old is the same as another also old guy being corrupt, I have no time for it. Both sides are not the same and insisting that they are is going to kill us. But so glad you all had fun at the nerd prom! Did you get your photo with ScarJo? Good for you! 

You can see Colin Jost’s set here:


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