God, this seems like a hard gig, doesn’t it? You’ve got half an hour, the president’s writers are at least as good as yours, some of your jokes are so wonky they have to be explained to the audience made up of wonks, you’ve got to make fun of celebrities and politicians, but the fact of the matter is, the night is for the journalists….or it was supposed to be, originally.
I started wondering if there’s ever been a female host at the WHCD. There’ve been a couple: in 1993, Elayne Boosler; in 1999 Arethra Franklin provided the entertainment (one assumes she didn’t do stand-up); in 2009, Wanda Sykes. In 2005 “First Lady Laura Bush made some jokes” (from the Wikipedia article on the WHCA).
Fun fact: the only repeat performer (as far as the chart shows) is Al Franken, in 1994 and 1996 (Conan O’Brien being the gingermeat in that particular Frankenwich).
Interestingly, this “tradition” of a comedy host is fairly new. In 1945, the first year of the dinner, they had “performers” which included Frank Sinatra. The chart then skips to 1969– was the dinner not held?– when it notes that “President Nixon personally requested the Disneyland Golden Horseshoe Revue.” (There’s got to be some good jokes in that.) It’s only in 1991 that recognizable “comedy hosts” start performing as such, and even since then, sometimes the dinner has relied on spoof videos or split the duties between more than one entertainer.
So it’s only very, very recently that there’s been a hint of rivalry between the “two” comedic performances: the president’s, whoever he (or, I hope, someday she) may be, and the host’s. And in fact, it’s only since Obama took office that this “rivalry” has gained any footing in the sense of it being a true competition. For while the quality of the jokes may be the same (as I mentioned, both obviously hire writers, and there’s no requirement that a certain number of the jokes be the speaker’s own), comedy is all in the timing…and Obama is our only President with a certain instinctual one-two count.
Now, President Clinton has a sly-dog sense about him, and one can imagine that Presidents like Bush and even Teddy Roosevelt were fond of pranks, but Obama is somewhat known for being able to make (and take) a joke.
One likes to imagine he’s enjoying the night with that big ear-to-ear grin of his. One likes to think of Obama as being the funniest, smartest guy in the room, even when put up against paid, professional comedians who do this every night of their lives. One likes to forget that he’s President and see him as the guy on the basketball court, the best roaster at the company or family annual dinner. And that’s ok. But it isn’t true.