The most interesting part of the 2014 White House Correspondents Dinner was watching the CSPAN coverage after it was all over.
Nothing that went on during the previous hour was as compelling as watching Katie Couric posing for pictures, talking animatedly and laughing with friends, as waiters began clearing the tables. Or watching Chris Christie, the butt of stingingly harsh jokes by Joel McHale and a more gentle one from President Obama, linger at his table greeting admirers, among them a disabled man in a wheelchair. Or seeing Ted Cruz actually appearing likable, laughing with columnist Clarence Page. Or Matt Lauer miming a "I can't stand up I'm so tired" pose to Samantha Guthrie.
If Joel McHale had seen those moments before he took the podium tonight, he might have had a better idea of what the dinner is all about, and how to approach that audience. Instead he performed the same kind of snarky, dark, often mean material that fans of his E! show The Soup must have loved. Unfortunately for McHale, there were only a few of them actually in the Washington Hilton ballroom. McHale earned the respect of the crowd for the boldest WHCA performance since Stephen Colbert in 2006, but earned only a handful of big laughs.
It was almost as if McHale knew his 25 minute routine wouldn't be appropriate for the occasion, but he decided to be himself, and just do what felt funny to him. Which is admirable on one level, although probably not the same level the organizers of the dinner were on. But as in the case of booking Howard Stern during the Clinton years, the WHCA knew what it was getting with Joel McHale. And if they didn't, they should have.
McHale should be hailed for his gutsy and cleverly crafted Chris Christie routine that mocked the investigation of Christie's George Washington Bridge traffic scandal by investigators hired by Christie himself, who not surprisingly vindicated him.
And there were several lines that were biting and funny, but not to the media heavy crowd, like "CNN is searching for something that's been missing for months: their dignity." The camera fixed on Wolf Blitzer, who was not amused.
But as he has done every year, President Obama turned in a funnier performance than the headlining comedian. Obama even deftly handled a technical glitch that failed to project a picture that was the punchline for his next to last joke. A timely comeback could have been, "The tech people at the Hilton are the same ones who built Healthcare.gov," except that the president already had a planned finale of a video freezing and Kathleen Sebelius stepping to the podium and pointing to the screen, which restarted it.
Obama's routine, while edgy and funny as usual, was not up to the standards of his previous WHCD stints. Maybe that was because the past year didn't provide the kind of comedy gold that the president had mined so effectively in the past, such as taking down Donald Trump for his birther rants. The two birther jokes this year were funny, but lacked the punch they provided when the material was more fresh.
After a year when Washington dysfunction and Congressional inaction hit new heights, finding fertile ground for jokes was more difficult. At least the president knew the room and knew the crowd. Which helped his standup standout once again.
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