Good luck, Jay Leno: Comedians who know the crowd offer advice

This might be Jay Leno’s fourth time hosting the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, but Washington has changed since the last time he spoke, back in 2004.

President Barack Obama — who has been a guest on Leno’s “Tonight Show” — is the man to impress now.

But dinner organizers aren’t worried. White House Correspondents’ Association President Ed Chen is confident in his pick.

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“I just thought he’d be a good one,” Chen said. “He’s a longtime friend of the association. He’s done this gig before. The Obamas like him. He likes them, and I didn’t want somebody terribly edgy and profane. I wanted someone genuinely funny and who I thought would be appropriate as an entertainer for the president of the United States — not like some past entertainers.”

Leno might not be as controversial as past speakers Don Imus and Stephen Colbert, but he might find that even the most congenial of comedians become subject to criticism. Last year, host Wanda Sykes received generally positive praise but didn’t escape the night without falling into a couple of booby traps with jokes about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Rush Limbaugh’s past addiction to painkillers. (A few boos from the audience followed.)

And Leno has a recent scandal of his own to confront, as his faceoff with Conan O’Brien for the “Tonight Show” perch is still fresh on the public’s mind.

In conversations The Hill had with several comedians about how Leno should approach the job, many made the same joke: that he should hope he doesn’t get on at 10 p.m., which has proven to be a bad hour for him. (The canceling of Leno’s 10 p.m. show led to his public fight with O’Brien over “The Tonight Show.”)

After getting in a few jokes of their own, the comedy panel also advised the veteran performer on what it takes to make a Washington audience laugh, which current issues he should bring up and if he should confront his scandal headon.

Mike Larsen

Larsen spent nearly 20 years in Hollywood as a stand-up comedian and sitcom writer before becoming Rep. Jackie Speier’s (D-Calif.) communications director. He has performed on Leno’s show twice and has written for Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg and Drew Carey, among others. Larsen recently left Speier’s office to return to his entertainment career.

On the WHCA Dinner audience: “From my experience witnessing these correspondents’ dinners, you have to accept the fact there will be controversy, whether you try to get it or not. Everyone in Washington has a sense of humor — as long as you’re joking about the other side, and the minute it gets the least bit uncomfortable, they’ll throw you under the bus … It’s a little bit of a snake pit for comedians, but it’s also this incredible opportunity. I’ve performed at a lot of political events, and I know that no matter what I say, there will be a couple times where I get an ‘ooo.’ And the truth is you have to take that as a laugh.”

On Leno’s approach: “He’s been doing comedy longer than I think [Michigan Democratic Rep.] John Dingell’s been in Congress… His monologue every night is very topical, so I wouldn’t imagine this is that much different from his regular monologues. The possible difference is you can be a little more in the weeds. You can make a joke more specifically about [House Minority Leader] John Boehner [R-Ohio], or someone who is a little less well-known than that.”

Jamie McIntyre

The Military.com blogger and former CNN correspondent co-won this year’s Commedia dell Media competition to find D.C.’s funniest journalist.

On following President Obama’s introductory speech: “Beware of the warm-up act. Traditionally the president does comedy at the White House dinner, and is always funny. After all, he’s got the same writers who did that boffo financial reform speech [last] week. Seriously, it’s hard to follow the president.”

On topics Leno should touch on: “[It’s] always good to be topical, and there’s nothing like a good collateralized debt obligation or credit default swap joke to get the crowd loosened up.”

Kathy Griffin

Griffin has performed in Washington several times during the past few years and was in town last month to lead a protest against the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

On Leno’s performance prospects: “I know Jay will do a great job. It’s in his ‘wheelhouse,’ as they say in Hollywood. Jay has performed for several presidents. He has written jokes for many political events.”

On Leno’s scandal: “He also has a special edge this year, as he was involved in a real-life television elected-office scandal of his own ... and he won! Just ask the president. Of course, I mean [NBC] President Jeff Zucker.”

Seth Weitberg

Weitberg, an actor with Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe, currently plays White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the troupe’s Barack Stars production at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co. Weitberg also authors The Week In Rebuke, a blog satirizing current events.

On Leno’s scandal: “If he wants to take a shot at a [Sen.] John Ensign [R-Nev.] or a [Gov.] Mark Sanford [R-S.C.], he better call himself out. I think you gain credibility by doing that. Otherwise he runs the risk of seeming holier than thou. It’s such a great opportunity to sort of exonerate himself. Frankly, he didn’t come off so great after that.”

On topics Leno should touch on: “The whole Tea Party movement is just rife with crazies, and crazy happens to be pretty funny … Absolutely hit up the Wall Street reform.”

Kate Clinton

Clinton is a New York-based comedian who specializes in political commentary.

On performing for a Washington audience: “I’ve noticed that when I play in D.C., it’s a wonderful audience because they not only know the power players, they know their secretaries and which-colored M&M’s they like. But they also know [politics] so much that they don’t want to hear it anymore. So it’s a delicate balance. I think the best way to do it is to personalize how it affects you.”

On how to handle a “boo”: “At that moment, you just yell right back at them; you don’t stop. You go, ‘Oh, come on.’ I think you just have to be ready with the next line.”

Emily Goodin contributed to this article.