The Funniest Performances at White House Correspondents' Dinners (Video)

Stephen Colbert Seth Meyers - H 2012
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Stephen Colbert Seth Meyers - H 2012

This Saturday evening, all eyes will be trained on the mustard-hued interior of an unremarkable D.C. Hilton ballroom, where the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner -- a rare convocation of politicians, entertainers and journalists (plus a smattering of tabloid freaks toted along as conversation-starters) -- will be held. The pressure is on for emcee Jimmy Kimmel to be brutally funny.

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Here's who he's going up against -- THR's choices for the funniest, smartest (and, yes, meanest) performances at White House Correspondents' Association dinners.


The scene: President Bill Clinton was using a pair of crutches at the 1997 dinner, having undergone surgery the month before to reconnect a torn tendon in his right knee. Norm MacDonald, a detached, sardonic wit with a psychotic twinkle in his eye, was Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update anchor. His performance started bumpily, but he eventually won the crowd over, and acknowledged as much as it started to happen.

MacDonald used the president's hobbled state to great comic effect, commenting, “You are handicapped and the President of the United States. You must have an unbelievable parking spot!” and encouraging Clinton to inhale medical marijuana: “It’s the only way you’re going to get better!” Other highlights: When he announced that guest Martha Stewart was “going to show us how to take those discarded fish bones and make a beautiful bird house,” and explained that no-show Al Gore had “broke down and they had to leave him in the shop.”


There will never be another dinner like the one Colbert hosted, in which the brilliant satirist delivered a withering condemnation of the Bush regime -- directly to President George W. Bush’s face. The mood in the ballroom at the time was less than hospitable; in fact, many of the jokes (if you could even call them jokes) were met with dead silence, and several Bush sympathizers walked out. Still, it didn’t take long before the performance went viral online, and its lasting place in U.S. political history -- Frank Rich called it the “defining moment” of the midterm elections in The New York Times -- was secured.

There are far too many quotable moments in it (here’s a complete transcript), but the most frequently cited is this Molotov cocktail, which, notably, implicates the media, too:

“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”

The following year, Rich Little would be invited to host for an evening of unobjectionable entertainment. The impressionist had last appeared in 1985, doing his Ronald Reagan alongside the real thing. It would take Obama's election for things to get funny again.


The SNL head writer’s performance last year drew rave reviews, somehow pushing, but never overstepping, the “edginess” line the occasion had grown to demand. (The year prior, Wanda Sykes proved far less successful, in a bit in which she called Rush Limbaugh “the 20th hijacker. He was so strung out on Oxycontin, he missed his flight.” 9-11 jokes, particularly those spoken a few yards from a sitting president, are never a good idea. The routine gave Fox News fodder for weeks.)

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Meyers clearly had the full force of the SNL writing staff behind him for his speech -- so much so that his Weekend Update material seems to pale in comparison. From his routine about Anderson Cooper’s wardrobe (“You can always tell how much danger Anderson Cooper is in by how tight his clothing is.”) to his observation about celebrities in attendance (“Jon Hamm is here. Yeah. Jon Hamm looks the way every Republican thinks they look. Zach Galifianakis is also here. Zach Galifianakis looks the way Republicans think every Democrat looks...”) Meyers gave the audience precisely what they showed up for: an irresistible skewering of politics, media and Hollywood, served up on a plate like a three-layer dessert.



Kimmel's most formidable competition might actually come from Obama himself: Harangued for weeks by Donald Trump to produce a long-form birth certificate -- which Obama had released three days earlier -- the president used the opportunity to get a series of pointed jabs back at the famously coiffed reality TV star, who sat in attendance.

"We all know about your credentials and breadth of experience," Obama told Trump, as the room erupted in laughter. "For example...just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, at the steakhouse, the men's team cooking did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn't blame Lil' Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night."

Trump had endured far sharper knives at the Comedy Central Roast held in his honor just a month before, but something about having the President of the United States swat him away like a hairy, orange gnat in front of the entire world got him where he lived. Any threats of a Trump presidential run ended that night.