White House Correspondents' Dinner 2018: How the presidential roast became the insult comedy event of the year

World

The annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner returns this weekend with one notable omission: the president. 

Every year, members of the Washington press corps gather on the last weekend of April for a black tie supper and the chance to see the US leader lightly grilled by their comedian host.

Donald Trump will not be in attendance this year, having skipped it in 2017 as well.

Host Michelle Wolf, from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, will have to get her teeth into Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders instead.

Mr Trump’s aversion to the annual “roast”, in which the incumbent is required to withstand a barrage of jokes at their expense in good humour, appears to stem from the flaying he received from President Barack Obama at the 2011 gala.

Mr Obama used the occasion to send-up the conspiracy theories surrounding his birth certificate and the suggestion that he was really born in Kenya by running a clip from Disney’s The Lion King (1994).

“I want to make clear to the Fox News table – that was a joke,” the president deadpanned, before training his sights on the billionaire businessman. 

“No one is happier, no is one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald and that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the things that matter, like: did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

The president went on to mercilessly tease Mr Trump over his responsibilities as host of reality show The Celebrity Apprentice (“These are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night”) before cutting to a PhotoShopped image of what the White House might look like in the hands of Trump Organisation developers.

The slide ruthlessly satirised the property tycoon’s taste for glitz, presenting a huge neon sign pasted across its frontage, several storeys added, a giant chandelier hanging from the porch and a jacuzzi for showgirls placed on the front lawn.

Mr Trump was reportedly so furious, he privately vowed never again not be the highest-ranking person in the room, his determination to win the presidency only intensifying.

According to Washington folklore, journalists were first invited inside the White House at the turn of the 20th century when President Theodore Roosevelt “looked out and took pity” on a gaggle of pressmen clamouring outside in the rain.

The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), whose annual celebration the dinner is, was founded in 1914 during the Woodrow Wilson administration to put to bed accusations congressional committees were exercising bias in choosing who could and could not attend press conferences.

WHCA’s first dinner was held in 1921, with singing between courses, early home movies shown and hour-long, post-meal entertainment provided by variety acts including jugglers and “animal impersonators”.

Franklin D Roosevelt welcomed the first black member of the press in 1944, when Harry McAlpin of The Chicago Defender was invited following an appeal by the National Negro Publishers Association.

Women were not admitted until 1962, when Helen Thomas, who would go on to cover 10 administrations and become a legend in her field, appealed to John F Kennedy.

President Kennedy duly declared that he would refuse to take his place at the table if no female reporters were present and the WHCA’s outmoded rules were hurriedly amended.

Over the years, the number of celebrity guests has increased and the calibre of the entertainment laid on has improved drastically.

Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Peter Sellers, Barbara Streisand, Richard Pryor and Aretha Franklin have all performed at the dinner.

The evening took its current form in 1983, taking a cue from The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast (1974-84) on NBC, itself inspired by the insult comedy specialised in by stand-ups at the New York Friars’ Club.

Hosts since that date have typically been politically-minded sketch comedians or late night talk show stars like Jay Leno, Jon Stewart and Craig Ferguson.

As Mr Obama demonstrated, the modern format gives presidents the chance to show another side of themselves and weaponise their skill in public speaking.

Bill Clinton memorably fired back at Mr Leno in 2000 by saying: “Now, no matter how mean he is to me, I just love this guy… because, together, we give hope to grey-haired, chunky baby boomers everywhere.”

The most notorious presidential roast remains Stephen Colbert’s extraordinarily daring takedown of George W Bush in 2006.

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Stephen Colbert skewering George W Bush in 2006 (Rex/Shutterstock)

Speaking in character as the right-wing demagogue he so brilliantly portrayed on The Colbert Report (2005-14), the comedian pretended to be in awe of his “hero”.

“Guys like us, we’re not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the ‘factinista’. We go straight from the gut,” he said, skewering the commander-in-chief’s decidedly anti-intellectual reputation. 

Tackling the president’s 32 per cent approval rating in the wake of the Iraq War, Mr Colbert said:

“We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality’. And reality has a well-known liberal bias.

“Sir, pay no attention to the people that say the glass is half empty… 32 per cent means it’s two-thirds empty.”

The comic went on to compare President Bush to Sylvester Stallone’s underdog boxer Rocky Balboa (“…and Apollo Creed is everything else in the world”) and his administration to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg”.

He also mocked the president for responding to tragedies “with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world” and his generals for “standing on a bank of computers and [ordering] men into battle”.

Mr Colbert followed this with a lengthy video skit in which he was hounded out of a press conference by Ms Thomas, gamely sending up the 86-year-old veteran, 44 years on from breaking a glass ceiling for women at the event.

According to legend, First Lady Laura Bush is said to have snarled “Get f***ed” at the comedian as he left the podium.

President Obama dismissed the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as “the prom of Washington, DC, a term coined by political reporters who never had the chance to go to an actual prom”.

The event has been attacked as a symbol of cosy collusion between administrations and the people supposed to be covering their manoeuvres dispassionately, but it is also a riotously funny relief from the dry and contentious business of government.

President Trump may come to regret passing up the opportunity to show a breezier side of his character but is no doubt tired of being the butt of jokes from Alec Baldwin and the cast of Saturday Night Live after three years of relentless mockery.

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