It wasn’t the first thing that happened, but the first thing I clearly remember is a great Woodrow Wilson joke: “I don’t want to say Mr. Wilson is a racist… but during dinner tonight he cut eye-holes in the tablecloth.” This was your initial indication, if you needed one, that Samantha Bee’s Not The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was not going to settle for cheap, Twitter-level digs at Trump’s hair. Ostensibly an audacious attempt to challenge D.C.’s insufferable annual media circle-jerk the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Bee’s show ultimately accomplished that, as well as something more meaningful. The series of filmed sketches in which Bee savagely roasted various 20th-century presidents ranging from Wilson to Nixon to Clinton were deployed between on-stage segments in order to keep the live audience entertained. But they served a secondary purpose too, situating Bee’s lacerating satire in the sweeping history of corruption and malfeasance that has always plagued the American experiment from its outset, threatening to choke away all that is good and noble through prejudice and petty greed. Previous eras relied on figures like Twain and Mencken to police the fatcats and crypto-fascists. We have Bee, projecting deep empathy through simmering anger and cloaking her hopefulness in caustic barbs.
In D.C., a pleasant day can turn from temperate into God-please-kill-me sweltering in a blink. Saturday was that kind of day. As we arrived at the DAR Constitution Hall to receive our credentials around 12:15, I had fairly soaked my blazer in a sweat. The media room was more forgiving, or at least there was water, and we chatted amiably with equally relieved colleagues. By the time we were ushered into our seats for the 3 p.m. taping, an odd combination of fatigue and anticipation hit the press crew like a wave. Who do you think is the secret guest? When do we get to go home?
Following the long wait for show time, any lingering ennui was quickly interdicted by an epochal guitar-army intro from Peaches, followed by the dynamic presence of Samantha Bee herself. Bee is marvelous on television, but the small screen does not fully do justice to her command of the stage, a comedic posture which skates the line between elegance and slapstick like nothing so much as Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. Constitution Hall is a cavernous space, and frankly a suboptimal venue for comedy, but Bee proved quickly able to bull through any obstacles with an apparent ease at odds with the high stakes occasion. There is something of Springsteen or Jagger to her — small performers who magically appear a thousand feet tall on stage.
Having accumulated a large and star-studded audience for her shadow affair, Bee and company wasted little time taking a sharpened ax to the media elites and their proxies in attendance. A tone-setting immolation of CNN president Jeff Zucker — a bilious figure of limitless smugness — made it immediately apparent that the gloves were off. The hilarious “In Memoriam” segment laid waste to grizzled predators Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly (“gone too late”), while ending on the disquieting note of their multimillion-dollar payouts after leaving under a hail of sexual harassment allegations. Rupert Murdoch and Sean Spicer were of course given appropriate examination, and the endlessly teased “mystery guest” lampooned the intensely irritating habit of cable news to drag out events in an interminably pathetic ratings grab.
It is difficult to judge these things from the cheap seats, but it seemed at a certain point that a perceptible change occurred within segments of the audience. Perhaps it was the point at which they realized that they weren’t in on the joke, they were the joke. It is a cliché to talk about the “D.C. Bubble,” but if you live and work in the media there, it becomes almost immediately obvious how true this really is. From the chattering-class of Georgetown and its sundry society pages to the still vital but strangely unselfaware Washington Post (who I have written for), ruthless self-examination is not exactly a popular local pastime. It is possible that many in attendance thought they were arriving for a stylish brunch and left feeling like they were tricked into an intervention.
Even the mystery guest — who turned out to be Will Ferrell reprising his turn as George W. Bush — ultimately became a referendum on recent failures in the media. As Bush, Ferrell bumbled about the stage wondering why he’d been subjected to so many tough questions as president (“Why are we going to war?”) while Donald Trump has largely been able to skate on claims of fake news and alternative facts. It was all very funny, but the unsubtle subtext was one of exasperation at a media too preoccupied with horse-race coverage and screaming arguments to meet their baseline responsibilities to the republic.
As the air continues to clear and the autopsy proceeds from this past election season, the question of “How did this happen?” remains troublingly unanswered. One unknowable factor is the talent drain that occurred with the retirement of the great cultural weathervanes David Letterman and Jon Stewart, whose probity and deep patriotism led them throughout the years to ride the news media into demonstrating something like a modicum of shame. Who is to say what might have happened if someone of Stewart’s standing were present to call bullshit on the media’s coverage of the Comey letter during the election’s final week? What if Trump had to stare down his old sparring partner Letterman instead of commiserating amiably with ditzy fellow fratboy Jimmy Fallon? Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, but we’ll never know, and it bothers the mind.
A final, disquieting taped sketch imagined a dystopian future under the leadership of President Pence, elevated to high office after Trump’s accidental death (he gets his head stuck in a honey jar and suffocates.) Here, Bee plays a skittish and bridled woman at a podium, ostensibly charged with roasting Pence but made too afraid by the religious-authoritarian state that has rendered women third-class citizens. She wears a chastity belt and apologizes pleadingly for each of her lame jokes. It is not a rousing send-off or a feel-good moment. It is a warning and wake-up call to those who have fallen asleep at the switch. This is all real, Bee keeps reminding us and the media. This actually happened. There are criminals in the corridors of power. At least there’s a new sheriff in town.
Additional Reporting Provided By Elizabeth Nelson