9:57pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Samantha Bee's 'Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner' Roasts, Celebrates the Press
Oft-maligned and left for dead or failing by The Powers That Currently Be, the free press had a banner night on Saturday with two different events celebrating the importance of journalism in all its forms, neither attended by our sitting president, who instead held a media-mocking rally in Pennsylvania.
The fact is that the White House Correspondents' Dinner was going to have a difficult task this year even if Donald Trump had deigned to attend an event he previously attended when he was neither president nor press, but rather the kind of TV celebrity he derided at his rally in Pennsylvania. The gimmick at the WHCD has always been the temporary removal of walls between press and those they cover, highlighted by a brief dropping of the kid gloves by a comic who would roast the commander-in-chief in a way that would make all in attendance blush. With or without Trump actual present, Saturday was just going to be another night of doing what every late-night figure other than Jimmy Fallon has been doing for 18 months to little avail.
Samantha Bee announced that she would be doing a counter-event before Trump announced he wouldn't be appearing on the main stage and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee’s Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner faced its own challenge: While Full Frontal has reliably been one of the sharpest, funniest comedy news shows on television — should you happen to like that sort of thing — since it premiered, the series has struggled, relatively speaking, with "specials." The largely canned coverage of both political conventions fell below the standards set by the regular series. For me.
Not that Bee stresses about my tiny criticisms of a show that still made my Top 10 for last year, but Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner ends whatever minor "special" jinx Full Frontal might have had. A briskly moving 75-minute special (with tons of good bits cut out, if you followed the reports from live attendees), Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner was loaded with cameos, outrage and just enough sincere appreciation of the efforts of the reporters in the room. It also raised nearly $200,000 for the Committee to Protect Journalists, or so Bee said, and she's been a harsh enough critic of "fake news" that I'll trust her for now.
One thing Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner won't get enough credit for is that it was rarely ideological and only sometimes even bothered to make fun of our president. The targets were much more media-based, as befitted the theme of the evening, starting with a filmed introduction in which Allison Janney, reprising her role as C.J. Cregg (but ignoring that C.J. stopped being press secretary long before The West Wing ended), pretty much shredded the press corps that Sean Spicer has been catering to in recent months, including "reporters" from Protocols of the Elders of Zion and urine-drinking fringe nutjob survivalists appearing via Skype.
"You are the dregs of a free society. We have to let you exist, but we do not have to listen to you," Janney/Cregg declared, before vaporizing one scribe with beams from her eyes because she, like Bee, is a witch.
In familiar roast fashion, Bee and her reliable (and often underused) correspondents poked fun at local news and TV reporting, simultaneously praising them for the efforts they put in despite the respect with which they're often held. Anybody on the right side of the aisle who wants to take offense at anything Bee said is free to, but no leader or politician was more eviscerated than CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who got blamed for scheduling Joey, wasting Anderson Cooper, employing Jeffrey Lord, giving Donald Trump an Apprentice platform in the first place and for a dozen (or more) dumb quotes disrespecting the dignity and responsibility of journalism.
"CNN gives you news like your shitty boyfriend gives you orgasms: In the end, you wind up lying in the wet spot and he’s snoring," Bee concluded, with probably one of her kindest comments toward Zucker.
I guess Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch were at least equally eviscerated, in an In Memoriam segment dubbed "Gone Too Late."
Past presidents and past administrations were far more lambasted in commercial-bridging flashback segments in which Bee — as a Laugh-in gadfly, flapper, '80s brick wall comedian and Madonna — took on Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and more. This just in! Woodrow Wilson was racist, Ronald Reagan didn't care enough about AIDS, Bill Clinton couldn't keep it in his pants and Henry Kissinger is a war criminal. Zings aplenty!
One former president who got off light was George W. Bush, but that's because he made a special cameo appearance, or at least Will Ferrell did, proving that he hasn't been practicing his Bush impression much lately, or else impressionists have begun to look at the aspiring portrait artist with nearly the same retroactive warmth as talk show hosts and others in the media.
Ferrell/Bush lamented his past relationship with the press, blaming their approach and his failure to know the correct responses, "You guys would always sneak up on me with ‘gotcha’ questions. Like, 'Why are we going to war? Gotcha!' 'Why did you not respond to Hurricane Katrina? Gotcha!' 'What is your middle name? Gotcha!' I just wish someone would’ve told me all you gotta say is ‘fake news’ over and over again."
Bee capped the show in emotional fashion with George Takei smuggling her a film from an alternate history, Man in the High Castle-style, allowing her to experience the 2017 White House Correspondents' Dinner she hosted for President Hillary Clinton. In this alternate timeline, Clinton might have been dealing with impeachment hearings, but at least the Atlanta Falcons won the Super Bowl, Lemonade won the album of the year Grammy and for some reason everybody was really salty about La La Land. In that reality, Clinton shook Angela Merkel's hand and there was a March for Men in which the marchers wore blue balls of yarn on their heads.
The bit closed with Bee telling President Clinton, "Because of you, I can tell my daughters they can do anything, and that sexism won’t hold them back. The world will not magnify their faults and ignore their virtues because of their gender. That time has truly passed. No hard feelings, men. If there’s one message that echoes from this dinner, let it be that men’s rights are human rights, and human rights are men’s rights."
Look, I'm not going to try telling you that Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner was Bee's funniest show, but the reason it wasn't Bee's funniest show was because of Bee's regular funny shows.
White House Correspondents' Dinner keynote speeches have typically been about the shock of experiencing no-holds-barred chiding of a president. [The events are also about seeing which presidents have a sense of humor about themselves, but Trump made that pretty clear back when he was roasted as merely a wealthy civilian. There have been allegations that that roasting inspired his presidential run, so … what would this have accomplished?] If that's already your bread and butter, it's hard to make even a sharp monologue spark in a new way. This one just happened to be preceded (and ended) by a live performance by Peaches, accompanied by a packed house at Constitution Hall and joined by guests like Jake Tapper, Patton Oswalt, Kumail Nanjiani and Steve Buscemi bristling at mispronunciations of his last name.
It was a good show for a good cause, even if there was a cash bar.
"At a later date, I will get Mexico to pay for all your drinks," Bee promised.