WASHINGTON — C-SPAN’s live telecast of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on Saturday night, hosted by Cecily Strong of “Saturday Night Live,” was not Strong’s finest hour, though the entire affair seemed like five of C-SPAN’s longest hours.
Even so, there were some genuinely funny moments, although the ratio was low, and you had to be patient to get to them. But when you step back and look at the event as a whole, and appreciate what’s really happening — in terms of press freedoms and even a U.S. president willing and able to poke fun at himself as well as others — it’s hard not to think of this particular Beltway-meets-showbiz event as a wonderfully American exercise in tolerance and good humor.
That being said, it’s a very tough room — and not just because the Washington Hilton ballroom is so cavernous. More than 2,000 credentialed White House journalists and their mostly celebrity guests convened for the occasion. And convened, and convened, and convened, as time dragged on and dinner was served late. President Barack Obama, as Strong’s warm-up act, didn’t hit the podium until 10:20 p.m. (Strong got her turn at 10:45.)
Obama, as in past years, came out strong — a tough act to follow for any comedian. He had strong comedy lines and delivered them with timing that many stand-up comics would envy. Noting his lame-duck status, Obama said his advisers asked him if he had a bucket list. “I have something that rhymes with bucket list,” he claimed to have replied.
Obama, noting the night’s guest speaker, said, “On ‘Saturday Night Live,’ Cecily impersonates CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin.” Then, after a brief but well-timed pause, he added, “Which is surprising, because usually, the only people impersonating journalists on CNN are journalists on CNN.”
Obama was nailing his own punch lines frequently, and perfectly. Then, to up the ante on his time at the podium, he welcomed his “anger translator” — a recurring character played by Keegan-Michael Key on Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele.” It was a clever surprise, and the crowd reacted with surprising enthusiasm (I wouldn’t have presumed most of them knew of Key’s character or his series), though Key’s jokes lost something in the translation, and didn’t pack the punch of Obama’s.
But the bit ended with a great twist: Obama himself getting so worked up about a snowball being carried into Congress to denounce global warming that the President’s “anger translator” had to calm Obama down instead.
And then came Cecily Strong, with a sly opening line referring not only to her appearance as one of the few female guest speakers at the correspondents’ dinner, but to the upcoming 2016 presidential election.
“Feels right,” she said, “to have a woman following President Obama.”
From there, the crowd seemed as tough as advertised, with “oohs” often as loud as laughter, as Strong went from one target to another. She even got “oohs” when her targets were outside the room, as when she said, noting how Obama has aged visibly in office, “Your hair is so white now, it can talk back to the police.”
But the seemingly tepid response to Strong’s routine may have been partly due to the late hour. She came on after not only the dinner service and Obama, but after scholarship awards, correspondent awards and tributes and other bits of official business. And her routine wasn’t over until 11:08 p.m. — making it a longer TV show than even the Emmys.
Before the main event finally began, C-SPAN filled the time scanning the room with its cameras, but providing only ambient sound with very few identifying voice-overs or prerecorded features. Once in a while, you could see someone recognizable in the large, oddly eclectic crowd: Tea Leoni, Ivanka Trump, Larry Wilmore, Jane Pauley. For the most part, though, it was like playing a frustratingly difficult Beltway game of spot-the-face-in-the-crowd — a sort of “Who’s Waldo?”
And after a few hours watching a gaggle of people chat and eat, all I wanted to do was go home. And I was already home. But I stayed tuned, just so I could watch, and grade, the results.
Final tally: Obama gets an A-, Keegan-Michael Key a C, Cecily Strong a B-, and the entire telecast and event an A+ for democracy — but a D as television.