I’ve been watching the White House Correspondents’ Dinner closely since 2011, when I started writing jokes for President Barack Obama. I thought Michelle Wolf’s routine Saturday night matched every other recent performer at that event. Comedy is subjective, so you can count on hits and misses. To me, Wolf landed several hard punches, and her big finish, which accused the press of complicity, was transcendent. I personally loved the CNN “breaking news” joke and her jab that Ivanka was as “helpful to women as an empty box of tampons.”
Those jokes made me laugh, but not all of them did. For example, I didn’t care for this one: “Republicans are easy to make fun of, you know, it’s like shooting fish in a Chris Christie.”
That struck me as a cheap shot. More accurately, I thought the joke wasn’t funny enough to justify the pettiness. If you’re going to be mean, you’d better be really funny. Wolf also brought up Mitch McConnell’s appearance, saying, “Mitch McConnell isn’t here tonight, he had a prior engagement, he’s finally getting his neck circumcised.”
Okay, that one made me laugh. McConnell does have a weird foreskin-y thing going on with his neck. But oddly, when Wolf was taken to task for attacking people for their physical appearance, those two men were left off the list. Instead, the focus landed on comments Wolf made about Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I was mystified. If Sanders was attacked for her looks, it was definitely not a direct hit.
So why did this tempest center on Wolf and Sanders? To me, it was obvious: Our culture loves pitting women against women. The rewards — clicks and RT’s — for a catfight are well-documented. I learned this in 2003 when I wrote a catfight into an episode of NCIS and it became the most downloaded clip for a day. Female journalists are aware of this, too — subconsciously or not — and those who love the spotlight rushed to attack Wolf like moths to a bug zapper.
Maggie Haberman of the New York Times was the first to jump on this manufactured catfight. Next, Mika Brzezinski and Andrea Mitchell piled on. This triggered a new wave of attack as people like me jumped in to defend Wolf.
Women, comedians, and the media all grabbed each other’s hair and threw each other to the floor while men watched and cheered. And that was hitting the trifecta for President Trump, who has continually dismissed all these groups. He skipped the dinner, but he must have been laughing his ass off.
Meanwhile, the WHCA released a statement distancing themselves from Wolf’s jokes. Some thought that smacked of throwing her under the bus. I don’t see it that way. Wolf was never on the same bus as the WHCA. She’s driving her own bus, heading back to NYC as fast as she can.
What will D.C. do now that they’ve been called out for their complicity? I suspect they’ll take a page from Judith Miller’s playbook. They’ll pass around the blame and move on to the next subject. They won’t confront the truths that Wolf told. I’d love to see droves of journalists publicly announcing that they’re dropping their membership in the WHCA in support of the First Amendment. But I won’t hold my breath.
“The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is DEAD as we know it,” President Trump tweeted this morning. Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post agreed and published an op-ed that opens with “The 2018 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner should be the last.”
This strikes me as the wrong response. Yes, the dinner has ballooned to an oddball mix of celebrities and politicians, but there have been moments where comedy allowed speakers to cut to the truth. I’ll never forget the wave of laughter in 2013 after President Obama declared: “Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”
The President calling out the Speaker for not being civil remains my favorite WHCD moment — and I didn’t even write that line.
Mel Brooks once explained why many of his movies made fun of Adolf Hitler. “You have to bring him down with ridicule, because if you stand on a soapbox and you match him with rhetoric, you’re just as bad as he is, but if you can make people laugh at him, then you’re one up on him,” he said.
It’s important to laugh at Mitch McConnell and President Trump and Press Secretary Sanders and all the others that are corrupting democracy. Saying Wolf was vulgar and attacked another woman for her looks is a smoke screen — smokier than Sanders’s smoky eye shadow. These lies ignore Wolf’s very real observation, which is that the president’s press secretary is a fucking liar. Yes, that’s vulgar for me to say. But it’s even more vulgar for her to do.
There is one possible silver lining to the argument for ending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It’s a long shot, but there’s a theory that Trump ran for president because of the jokes made at his expense at the 2011 WHCD. What if Trump’s entire plan was:
1. Become president
2. Abolish the WHCD dinner
Now that he’s close to announcing “Mission Accomplished,” maybe he’ll go away.
Nell Scovell is author of the recent memoir Just the Funny Parts: … And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club.