The White House Correspondents Dinner is where comedy goes to die

It’s way past time to put this Aaron Sorkin-ass “gee golly we’re all just friends havin’ fun here” circle jerk to rest.

US President Joe Biden (L) shakes hands with South African comedian Trevor Noah during the White Hou...

I’d be hard-pressed to think of a worse way to spend a perfectly decent Saturday evening than by being locked in a ballroom with some of the most insufferable people in politics and media, all breathing the same recycled air and listening to the same recycled jokes. And yet, after a two-year hiatus (there’s been a pandemic on, you know), the White House Correspondents Dinner came roaring back this weekend — if by “roaring” you mean “unremarkable to the point of irrelevance.” Host Trevor Noah and President Biden dished out lukewarm bon mots and nudge-nudge-wink-wink topical references, all while guests like Kim Kardashian and Meghan McCain and CIA Director Bill Burns chewed their entrees.

Pull back its gauzy trappings of power and celebrity, and the annual White House Correspondents Dinner becomes just another excuse for the uppermost echelons of American high society to rub elbows and chortle at their own sense of self-worth. It’s not that the jokes weren’t funnysome were very much chuckle-worthy. But the whole affair, from the glitzy private parties to the scattershot bipartisan guest list (Laura Ingraham! Lloyd Austin!) rang particularly hollow this year. The projected sense of self-deprecating comity between political adversaries only served to highlight just how disconnected the whole affair and its attendees are from the rest of the country; the most powerful people in the U.S. chortling along at anodyne jokes about Fox News and the ongoing pandemic (more than 500 people died from COVID the night before the dinner!) made the evening a weirdly anachronistic event, with no real stakes either for the insulated power players it was catering to or for the actual, real people outside the ballroom whom they’re supposed to be serving.

Take, for instance, Biden’s jibe that dinner attendees were required to prove they were fully vaccinated and boosted. If people weren’t sure how to get a jab, Biden recommended, “just contact your favorite Fox News reporter. They’re all here. Vaccinated and boosted.”

It’s the sort of self-referential in-joke that seems funny on the surface, but becomes more craven and depressing the longer you think about it. Ha ha ha, isn’t it hilarious that an entire TV network is full of transparent hypocrites who are quite literally getting their audience killed? Who is this joke for? It’s neither punching up nor down. It’s just stating an obvious fact to an audience fully insulated from the consequences of that fact.

Or here’s Noah, courageously beating a dead horse live in front of an audience of hundreds:

Again, I ask: What’s the joke here? That the Conways have a fucked-up marriage? That rich people can pretty much do whatever they want without any lasting consequences? This is the sort of topical reference best suited for a late-night talk show host’s monologue, which ... huh! How about that.

If Republicans truly represent the threat Democrats (correctly) claim they do, and if Democrats are the feckless authoritarian thugs Republicans (incorrectly) accuse them of being, then plopping the biggest names in both parties into a hotel ballroom to laugh and schmooze and carouse with one another only gives the impression that none of the attendees actually care much about the stuff they spend all day shouting about. It’s only “unity” in the sense that the wealthy and powerful have much more in common with one another than they’d like to admit.