Rove notwithstanding, dinners get a bad rap


WASHINGTON -- There was a larger dollop of funny at this year's Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner, though it was more of the uncomfortable kind than anything else.

President Bush made an appearance, his first since the showing of the infamous video three years ago that pictured him jokingly looking around the Oval Office for those elusive weapons of mass destruction.

The president time this was, by all accounts, funny. He poked fun at Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential candidate Barack Obama and was game for the obligatory jokes about his decline in popularity during his second term. He wondered aloud if his memoirs ought to be a pop-up book. It was a welcome change from Cheney, who ably demonstrated the past two years that stand-up is not a career option after the 2008 elections.

Then there was Bush adviser Karl Rove, who performed an impromptu hip-hop dance at the request of improvisational comics Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie. Sherwood pulled a clearly uncomfortable Rove into the spotlight for a first few minutes that teetered on disaster before coaching Rove on how to rap. Unbelievably, Rove played along. Audience members who moments before thought they were watching a televised train wreck found themselves laughing with Rove.

Trust me, it was funnier there than on YouTube.

In going with Mochrie and Sherwood -- comedians who appeared for years on ABC's "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" -- and their Rove skit, the dinner's organizers clearly chose not to play it safe, which they might have been tempted to do so soon after Stephen Colbert's roasting of Bush at last year's White House Correspondents Assn. dinner. (Those folks followed up this year with Rich Little as their headliner.)

Working this show means treading a fine line, as Louis Black learned when the "Daily Show" contributor served as the entertainment during the 2005 Radio-TV dinner. The media industry still was absorbing the news that Peter Jennings had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and a pall had fallen over the room. Black said that he frankly wasn't comfortable doing jokes among so many power players, comparing it to when he attended his high school prom in the very same room decades earlier.

"I'm dressed in a tux, I'm uncomfortable and once again, I know I'm not going to get lucky," Black said then.

These two dinners, which have occurred within a month of one another every spring in Washington for decades, bring together the elite from the media and politics, a dwindling number of Hollywood types and a few working stiffs like yours truly. Some wonder why they bother attending at all, despite the fun that Colbert, Bush and Don Imus have provided the past few years. To them, it's more of a chore than anything else.

"After the 12th or 13th year, it sort of starts to lose its luster," one journalist said on the way in.

Not so for the onlookers who happened to be at the Washington Hilton on Wednesday night and saw either the president or any number of big-name politicians and journalists stroll through the lobby. One woman, at the hotel for another conference, showed me a list of the celebrities she had seen.

"I want to be able to remember so I can tell the kids later," she said.