WASHINGTON ― Until its taping on Saturday, comedian Samantha Bee’s “Not The White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” billed as a response to the storied Washington tradition, remained a mystery.
The show’s producers kept details about the special event under wraps, only revealing that they aimed to honor journalism and that proceeds would go to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
After President Donald Trump announced that he would not attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, suggesting that it would be a more muted affair this year, Bee’s event became rumored as “the hottest ticket in town,” adding even more intrigue and speculation.
“You can’t compare the two events, really, because we’re filming a television show, and they really are having a dinner,” Bee told HuffPost before the show’s taping, while crew members milled around, wearing shirts saying “FREE PRESS.” “I mean, we’re having a dinner too, but it’s not the same type of event. You know, the purpose of our event is to celebrate freedom of the press, primarily.”
“We’re all here, partially because Samantha’s a brilliant insightful comedian, but also because we’re in support of a free press, and that’s an important thing to continue having a conversation about in a really regular way,” Ana Gasteyer, actress and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, told HuffPost.
But at times, the event, airing as a special episode of Bee’s TBS show “Full Frontal” on Saturday night, simultaneous to the real White House Correspondents’ Dinner, could easily be mistaken for the dinner itself.
The show successfully delivered in both honoring journalism and roasting the president — whom Bee called the “geriatric orangutan” — in a variety of onstage and pre-taped segments.
Like the actual dinner, the scene outside of Bee’s taping was a strange confluence of the politics and entertainment worlds, with reporters from news outlets like the Associated Press, CNN and NBC conducting interviews next to video crews from “Access Hollywood” and “Extra.”
Inside DAR Constitution Hall, comedians hobnobbed with journalists at banquet tables, while waiters handed out cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.
Bee and the “Full Frontal” cast sought to highlight media outlets of all stripes, during the show. Some have been targets of the Trump administration, from the “failing New York Times,” to the “failing ‘what the fuck is ProPublica, it sounds Mexican,’” Bee joked.
But the show also noted the Weather Channel’s coverage of climate change and local newspapers and TV stations, including a shoutout to the Storm Lake Times, the twice-weekly Iowa community newspaper that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
“We hope we’ve made you proud by taking your amazing reporting and adding our dick jokes,” cast member Allana Harkin said.
A slideshow of “great moments for the press and the presidency” throughout history kept audience members entertained between the onstage segments.
Like the actual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Bee’s show also ripped the media, primarily cable news. But it sought to distinguish the networks’ journalism from entertainment, like in a segment mocking CNN head Jeff Zucker for characterizing his approach to political coverage as sports in a recent New York Times magazine interview.
“CNN employs some of the best journalists out there. Please, Jeff, use their journalistic skills,” Bee said, with several CNN journalists in the audience, including Jake Tapper and Dana Bash.
Bee left no stone unturned in her jabs at Fox News, riffing on the twin downfalls of former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and host Bill O’Reilly, as well as Trump’s penchant of live-tweeting the network and praising its slanted coverage of him.
Mocking cable news’ penchant for overdramatic, wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s speeches and appearances, Bee teased a “special guest” throughout the show, with on-screen chyrons like “BREAKING: SPECIAL GUEST’S PLANE IS ON THE TARMAC” and live shots of an empty presidential lectern.
That “special guest” did turn out to be a president, sort of: Will Ferrell reprising his celebrated George W. Bush impression, roasting Trump and honoring journalists.
“It’s like being on the Titanic,” Ferrell as Bush said of Trump, joking that journalists “are playing the violin while the ship goes down.”
The parallels between Bee’s event and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner were brought full circle in the show’s concluding segment, which imagined an “alternative timeline” with Hillary Clinton as president and Bee as the featured comedian at Clinton’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Like during Bee’s show, the president and his first 100 days in office were not entirely the focus but loomed large, dominating the conversation among guests on the “purple carpet” before the taping.
“I think the inability of people who know better to convince the president to stop saying things that are just patently false has been a surprise,” CNN’s Jake Tapper told HuffPost. “Because at some point, one would think somebody around him, whether it’s Jared [Kushner] or [Steve] Bannon or whomever, would say: ‘37 percent of the public thinks you’re honest and trustworthy, and that’s a really low number. You can rebuild that, and people are willing to give you another a shot...let’s stick to facts.’ Because I think there’s a lot of leeway the public gives the president, but for whatever reason, they have not been able to do that, and he has not been able to listen.”
Alternatively, “The Daily Show” co-creator and reproductive rights activist Lizz Winstead took aim at Trump’s ability to convince people to “give him a chance.”
“He can not execute things because they are inexecutable,” she said. “And he fooled people into thinking the inexecutable is executable. And so, with this whole ‘let’s give him a chance!’ it’s like, ‘Oh, people, there’s no chance.’
When asked to grade Trump’s first 100 days in office, Winstead struck a more comic tone.
“Expired meat? Is that a grade?”