Annual correspondents’ dinner gives political comedians opportunity to shine


On a recent episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” the comic took a potshot at presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s popularity.

“You know what, popularity is overrated,” Kimmel said. “The important thing for a leader is to stay true to the things you think people want you to believe.”

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Kimmel found an easy comedic target in Romney, but material for his late-night show more often relies on headlines from news not related to politics. In an informal survey of a week’s worth of recent monologues, Kimmel, the speaker at Saturday’s annual White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner, made approximately a dozen political or Washington-related jokes. Nearly all referred to the presidential campaign or the recent Secret Service prostitution scandal.

“Jimmy’s humor is sophisticated and edgy while appealing to a wide audience,” Reuters journalist and WHCA President Caren Bohan has said of the comedian.

While Kimmel rarely shies away from making political jokes, he’s far from the edgiest host the WHCA could have chosen.

In 2006, WHCA dinner host Stephen Colbert left attendees’ mouths agape with his humorous but pointed critique of then-President George W. Bush. The event quickly devolved into a roast of the administration and left many in the audience feeling uncomfortable.

For political satirist Will Durst, Colbert’s performance was the equivalent of singer Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl. In the following years, America was subjected to safe half-time entertainment, and the WHCA dinner has suffered a similar fate in Colbert’s aftermath.

“What happens is you ruin it for other political comics,” Durst said of Colbert’s performance. “The correspondents get burned by Colbert or [radio host Don] Imus or somebody, and for two or three years, they won’t have a political comic.”

Headliners since Colbert’s performance have included Jay Leno and Wanda Sykes, neither of whom specializes in political comedy.

Mary Phillips-Sandy, an editorial producer for Comedy Central’s Indecision website, said it’s not only a missed chance, but a comedic disservice.

“We do have these rare opportunities like the correspondents’ dinner where comedy and politics can really come face to face,” she said. “I think it should be as exciting as possible, not as safe as possible.”

The buzz Colbert’s “incredible” performance created in the days, weeks and even years that followed adds to the nation’s political discourse in a “healthy” way, Phillips-Sandy said.

“There’s this sense that somehow by inserting comedy into politics, you’re undermining a sacred process or you’re undermining something so important that it’s really disrespectful,” she said. “And I happen to feel that bringing comedy into politics and confronting politics with comedy is a way of strengthening the political organism. I think it benefits everyone to make you sit up and gasp a little.”

Robert Thompson, founding director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, said political comedy can provide crucial insights because it is not confined to the same standards as journalism.

“You can really shoot from the hip when you’re a comedian,” he said. “You don’t have to be confirming sources, you don’t have to be adhering to all of these journalistic ethics that we hope people adhere to.

“The idea with comedy is fools can rush in where angels fear to tread,” Thompson added. “They’re playing the role of the clown, but as we know from reading Shakespeare, sometimes the clown … is the smartest person on the stage.”

Phillips-Sandy takes her role as clown very seriously, making sure Indecision’s website and social media content not only entertain but also inform. Recent postings include

“UnSuper Tuesday” coverage, “Ted (Nugent) Talks” and interviews with politicians including Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) and former New Mexico governor and Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

“Simply being funny is not enough anymore,” she said. “We also want to be really timely and current, stay ahead of things.”

What began as simple political jokes with the likes of Johnny Carson and the Smothers Brothers in the 1960s evolved into more pointed jabs thanks to “Saturday Night Live” and comics Bill Maher and Dennis Miller in the 1980s and ’90s. But it wasn’t until the new millennium that the modern age of political comedy really began.

According to Thompson, the mainstream media “dropped the ball” while covering the lead-up to the Iraq war because many journalists feared being labeled as unpatriotic and un-American. Comics were left to provide political analysis.

Comedy Central television hosts Jon Stewart and Colbert began to influence the political dialogue, and throughout the last decade other personalities and late-night entertainment programs followed suit.

“Pretty soon we had this really rich and healthy environment of civic discussion taking place in the idiom of comedy, sometimes more effectively than the civic discussions taking place in the idiom of journalism,” Thompson said.

Such pointed satire doesn’t just hold up a mirror to lawmakers and the political process, he said.

“Maybe more importantly than what those guys say about politics is what they end up saying about how television media cover politics,” he said, referring to the 24-hour news cycle pioneered by CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

“On a good night of ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘The Colbert Report,’ some of that stuff is the most trenchant commentary on the politics of the day in any media,” he said. “Part of a balanced diet of civic information now includes some of this comedy.”

There’s no shortage of political news or humor in sight as Phillips-Sandy and Durst gear up for the 2012 presidential race and continue to tackle Congress’s low approval ratings.

“The political circus is so much bigger and richer than I think the mainstream media will tell you sometimes,” Phillips-Sandy said. “Someone is always going to say something worth making fun of.”

When Kimmel takes the stage Saturday to poke fun at our nation’s leaders and the dysfunctional nature of politics, it’s fair to say he’ll be biting the proverbial hand that feeds him.

“That’s the funny thing: If we ever really got to a utopia, if we ever got a really, really good president who was doing all the right things and doing them effectively, if we ever had a truly functional and ethical and efficient and intelligent journalism operation and all that kind of stuff, utopia would put comedians out of business,” Thompson said with a laugh.