Colin Jost Falls Flat at White House Correspondents Dinner

People in the media have long worried about the impact of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on journalism. The concern is that it makes the press look too chummy with politicians it’s covering. But what is the impact on comedy?

A high-ceilinged hotel ballroom filled with television anchors and network executives is a tough room for stand-up, but no more so than an awards show. Trevor Noah was funnier two years ago at the dinner than he was at this year’s Grammys.

A murderer’s row (George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Conan O’Brien, Wanda Sykes) has taken this assignment because it’s one of the most high-profile live comedy sets of the year. And there has been one truly great performance (Stephen Colbert), some very good ones (Seth Meyers, Larry Wilmore) and one so thrillingly biting (Michelle Wolf) that the next year they replaced the comic with a historian.

Colin Jost’s set this year does not belong in that pantheon. Without his Weekend Update partner Michael Che next to him, he came off muted, vanilla, less assured than usual. With long pauses between jokes, eyes darting side to side, he occasionally took a drink of water and at least once acknowledged the lack of laughter in the room. His jokes leaned on wordplay more than a specific or novel perspective. “Some incredible news organizations here,” began one of his pricklier jokes, finished by: “Also, some credible ones.”

He focused much fire on former President Donald J. Trump. “Now that O.J.’s dead, who is the front-runner for V.P.?” he asked. “Diddy?” Like Biden, Jost has always benefited from low expectations. No one that handsome could be funny, right? But he has grown into his role at “Saturday Night Live,” proving to be an especially strong straight man adept at the comedy of embarrassment. You could see his timing in one of the odder moments when he said Robert Kennedy Jr. could be the third Catholic president and the C-SPAN camera cut to President Biden (the second) clapping. Jost retreated on Kennedy’s chances one beat later: “Like his vaccine card says, he doesn’t have a shot.”

For the third year in a row, President’s Biden’s age played a big role in the comedy (“Technology wasn’t invented when he was in high school” Jost said of Biden), even in the president’s own set. Two years ago, Biden joked that he was friends with Calvin Coolidge. Last year, he referred to his “pal Jimmy Madison.” The president took a slightly different and more confrontational approach this time. “Age is an issue,” he said early. “I’m a grown man running against a 6-year-old.”

Can jokes help defuse the issue? They don’t hurt. Ronald Reagan handled concerns about his age with humor, joking at one dinner that he was around when the wheel was invented. People tend to overestimate the power of jokes from comedians and underestimate them from politicians. Both Trump and former President Barack Obama forged bonds with their voters through their senses of humor. Biden is not as funny as his two predecessors, but his joking asides have a loose, towel-snapping warmth that is a key part of his appeal. It’s why appearing on Howard Stern this past week was such a smart move, as unimaginable as that would have been several decades ago.

Trump never showed up to the correspondents’ dinner during his time in the White House, and his inability to laugh at himself represents a vulnerability. President Biden often seems to be trying to bait him with mockery (he called him “Sleepy Don”) and makes a pretty convincing show of enjoying being made fun of. Of course, it helps that the comics at his dinners, Noah and Roy Wood Jr., only gently roasted him. But their performances were Bill Hicks polemics compared to the jokes by Jost.

Jost’s strongest moment came the end when he paid emotional tribute to his grandfather — a firefighter and Biden supporter who died recently — then championed the virtues of decency. This earnest argument would have fit in a political convention or a civics class but was unusual to hear in this setting. Wholesome sincerity from a stand-up comic can be more chilling than any transgressive joke. But we live in scary times. Early on, Jost said he was honored to be here at what was likely to be, “judging by the swing state polls, the last White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”

In a recent podcast interview with The New York Times, Roy Wood Jr. told Astead W. Herndon that the correspondents’ dinner job was “one of the singular events in stand-up comedy that is truly reflective of where we are as a country at that exact moment.”

If so, the mood of the nation landed as nervous.

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