Critic's Notebook: Larry Wilmore Underwhelms at White House Correspondents' Dinner

Larry Wilmore - H 2016

This was not the kind of extended roast Stephen Colbert famously gave George W. Bush in 2006.

Those expecting something trenchant from Larry Wilmore's headlining speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner surely perked up early on, when he mentioned seeing President Barack Obama hanging out with the Golden State Warriors' Steph Curry. They probably got along well, Wilmore guessed, because "both of you like rainin' down bombs on people from long distances."

"Am I wrong?" he asked, as the room grew tense and the President tried to keep a gracious smile on his face. But this was not the start of the kind of extended roast Stephen Colbert famously gave George W. Bush in 2006, as Wilmore immediately shifted gears to skewer the less powerful people in the room. His only other jabs at the President would be some familiar one-liners about his graying hair and failure to close Guantanamo. He spent more time mocking a politician many are ready to write off, beating a Ted Cruz-as-Zodiac Killer bit into the ground.

Instead, the host of The Nightly Show made most of his jokes at the media's expense, and in this room full of reporters, they probably sounded meaner than they were meant to. With no Donald Trump in the audience, it fell to Wolf Blitzer to maintain a humorless stone face when Wilmore mocked The Situation Room; responding to recent personnel changes, Wilmore joked that MSNBC stood for "Missing a Significant Number of Black Correspondents"; later he suggested a countdown clock on CNN's screen was tracking the network's ratings as they fell to zero.

He got booed for that last remark, and drew mild groans for several others. Midway through, he complained, "You guys are tough, man!" But underwhelmed response to his material was par for the course for an overhyped event whose most exciting element may have been the sight of Dame Helen Mirren, dressed in purple, with a hand-drawn tattoo of Prince's glyph on her collarbone. (Or, for dog lovers, the French bulldog Carrie Fisher walked down the red carpet. Where'd that little guy eat?)

Those who tuned in for C-SPAN's coverage of the celebrity arrivals were treated to the sight of notables ranging from Bryan Cranston to Aretha Franklin, Rachel McAdams to Van Jones. Rather than have someone on the scene interviewing the movie stars and journalists, the network had off-site announcers who talked ad nauseam about how one gets into this journo-centric affair and which celeb was a guest of which news organization.

That started at 6 p.m., and Wilmore didn't speak until after 10 p.m. In between, C-SPAN actually showed more than an hour of people eating and schmoozing, with occasional pre-taped segments referring to the many pre-parties that accompany the annual event. (If you didn't know the Correspondents' Dinner is nicknamed "Nerd Prom," you certainly did before that "tapas-style" dessert course was served.)

People have joked about not wanting to follow the President at these events, but Obama didn't give Wilmore too much to worry about — certainly nothing like what he did to last year's host, Cecily Strong, by bringing out Keegan-Michael Key to serve as his Anger Translator, Luther. There were a few good jokes and some jabs at the journalists who've covered him (like Jake Tapper, who Obama said "left journalism to join CNN"), but nothing to set YouTube ablaze tomorrow morning.

In keeping with a joke he made about the media giving Trump's presidential candidacy too much coverage, Obama spent less time mining that easy subject for comedy than viewers might have expected; though in a memorable image, he wondered what The Donald could be doing instead of attending this dinner: "Is he at home eating a Trump Steak, tweeting out insults to Angela Merkel?"

Riffing on those who did attend, he ribbed Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, gave a shout-out to his "comrade" Bernie Sanders, and acknowledged Helen Mirren. "I don't even have a joke here," he confessed. "I just think Helen Mirren is awesome."

The President, in his eighth and final WHCD as guest of honor, offered a mildly amusing video envisioning his post-White House life (predictably, Joe Biden stole scenes) before offering an "all jokes aside" tribute to the work journalists do. He ended his speech by saying "Obama out" and doing a mike drop, a move that works best when a performer has really killed. This wasn't a crowd-killing kind of night. But with the extended farce of the race to be the person addressing this crowd as President next year, how could this chummy little event hope to compete?