“Welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” said Hasan Minhaj at the top of his speech at the 2017 dinner, the first one held during the Trump administration.
Technically, that year didn’t mark the end of the formal event, which enables journalists, political figures, and an assortment of seemingly randomly chosen celebrities to commingle each spring while a comedian and (usually) the president poke fun at the D.C. media circus. In 2018, Michelle Wolf served as emcee and apparently offended enough attendees by making fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders for being a liar that historian Ron Chernow was asked to host in 2019. Then the whole affair shut down for two years because of COVID. President Trump showed up exactly zero times during his term.
So even though Minhaj was exaggerating when he called the event a finale five years ago, he was not entirely wrong. Things felt different in the years that followed his hosting gig, which is why the 2022 Correspondents’ Dinner played out like the equivalent of a TV reboot, a vibe that may have especially resonated with those viewing from home on C-Span, America’s No. 1 network for watching famous people eat dinner in a hotel ballroom on a Saturday night.
As in most reboots, a lot of familiar elements were there. The structure of the program — present awards to journalists, listen to the president make a funny speech, listen to the host make a funny speech — remained the same. The star of the show, the president of the United States, made a return, with a familiar face from the Before Times in the role. Some celebrities, though admittedly not as many high-wattage ones as there used to be, were once again present, including Drew Barrymore, J. Smith Cameron (Gerri Kellman’s not going to pass up an opportunity to network among the elite), and America’s odd power couple of the moment, Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson. (C-Span: America’s No. 1 Network for Following Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson for Several Minutes As They Walk Toward a Dinner Table.)
But as is often true in reboots, things felt a little different. While there was certainly plenty of comedy (or attempts at comedy; see the pre-taped bit with James Corden), this Correspondents’ Dinner seemed to be in the process of finding its footing and sense of purpose.
“We’ve come here to answer an important question on everyone’s mind: Why in hell are we still doing this?” Biden asked early in his speech.
“It is my great honor to be speaking tonight at the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event,” said this year’s host, Trevor Noah, before adding, “No, for real, people: What are we doing here?”
This was a good question, and a question that has been asked, re-asked, and re-re-asked about the Correspondents’ Dinner for years. This year specifically: Why hold a traditional but not necessarily crucial event when COVID is still a factor? Biden said it was to demonstrate that the country was moving forward, and added that everyone in attendance had to provide proof they’d been vaccinated and boosted. “If you’re at home watching this and you’re wondering how to do that, just contact your favorite Fox News reporter,” Biden said, alluding to the network’s increasingly anti-vaxx stance. “They’re all here, vaccinated and boosted. All of them.” Cut to Peter Doocy, the Fox White House correspondent who asks the most willfully ignorant questions, for a look of indignant irritation.
But Biden and Noah didn’t merely throw darts at Fox, perhaps the most obvious and deserving target in the room. Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the very real dangers facing those who cover it, a subtextual purpose was conveyed during this year’s event: that this ostensible tribute to the free press was taking place because that’s something that, in the United States, we should be grateful we still can do.
It could be heard when Biden introduced Noah by noting: “Now you get to roast the president, and unlike in Moscow, you won’t go to jail.”
It echoed in the conclusion of Noah’s speech as well.
“Ask yourself this question,” he said. “If Russian journalists who are losing their livelihoods, as you were talking about, and their freedom for daring to report on what their own government is doing, if they had the freedom to write any words, to show any stories or to ask any questions — if they had basically what you have, would they be using it in the same way that you do? Ask yourself that question every day, because you have one of the most important roles in the world.”
In this environment, with the war ongoing and a new appreciation for resuming traditions like the dinner, that subtext may have resonated more than any pointed jokes could have. An in memoriam tribute to the journalists who lost their lives while covering the conflict in Ukraine and a salute to the first Black women to serve as White House reporters, Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, stood out as highlights on a night with more poignancy than usual. That said, there were still pointed jokes, from both Noah and Biden, aimed at the politicians who make news and those who bring that news to us. They each got in a few good ones.
“There’s nothing I can say about the GOP that Kevin McCarthy hasn’t already put on tape,” quipped Biden, referring to revelations about the House Minority Leader’s actual reactions in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
“Whenever there’s a disaster anywhere in the world, Chef José is there,” Noah said, acknowledging the presence of chef and humanitarian José Andrés. “Which I guess is why he’s sitting at the CNN table tonight.” Noah told a number of jokes at the expense of CNN and its recently departed offshoot, CNN+.
“Republicans seem to support one fella, some guy named Brandon,” Biden joked, alluding to the utterly asinine “Let’s go Brandon” chant championed by some conservatives. “I’m happy for him. He’s having a good year.”
Noah: “As you all know, President Biden’s lack of a filter does get him into hot water sometimes. Last month, he caused a huge international scandal by saying that Vladimir Putin should be removed from power. It was very, very upsetting to Russia. Until someone explained to them that none of the stuff Biden wants actually gets done.”
Biden not only sat there and took that. He laughed.
Admittedly, President Biden isn’t as skillful at the art of comedy as President Obama was, and Noah didn’t say anything perceived as inflammatory enough to ignite the kind of controversy Wolf did. But they did fine, and when you’re talking about a reboot, fine is all you need. The WHCD is back, for better or for worse, looking mostly the same but feeling a little different, and probably attracting scant notice from Americans who aren’t in the media or politics, as was always the case. That’s certainly enough to grant it another season. Despite the events of the past four years, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner can’t be permanently canceled. It’s the series that, unlike CNN+, seems destined to keep going whether anyone pays attention or not.