July 12th, 2020


Cut the comedy? The White House Correspondents' Association is considering it

 Paul Farhi

By Paul Farhi The Washington Post

Published May 1,2018

Cut the comedy? The White House Correspondents' Association is considering it

The lesser-known (Read: no-name) stand-up who may force WHCA's leadership to get rid of the comedy portion of its annual dinner.

Several news organizations have threatened to withdraw their financial support of the White House correspondents' dinner next year if the group doesn't drop the traditional comedy act from the program.

The board of the dinner's sponsoring organization, the White House Correspondents' Association, began discussing changes after Saturday night's entertainer, comedian Michelle Wolf, delivered a standup routine that sparked both outrage and cheers with her jabs at President Donald Trump and administration staffers, including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and special adviser Kellyanne Conway.

Upset by the reaction, some members have advised the WHCA's leadership to get rid of the comedy portion next year --- or else.

"News organizations are going to make their feelings known that the comedy aspect of the dinner has become too risky for the association and too damaging for the dinner," said a White House reporter involved in the discussions. "It's too disruptive."

The WHCA's president, Bloomberg reporter Margaret Talev, sounded officially contrite after Wolf's televised routine scandalized some of Trump's supporters and brought others rushing to Wolf's defense. She issued a statement to members, prompted in part by threats of an exodus next year, that read in part, "Unfortunately, the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of [the WHCA's] mission."

For his part, Trump - who ditched the event for the second year in a row - repeatedly trashed Wolf and the dinner on Sunday and Monday and offered his suggestion about what to do next: "Put Dinner to rest, or start over!" he tweeted.

It's highly unlikely the WHCA will end the dinner, a Washington ritual dating back to 1921. Almost all of the group's annual revenue, used to maintain a small office that coordinates pool reporting duties and advocates for media access, comes from selling tables at the dinner to news organizations. The dinner's proceeds also fund the organization's journalism scholarships.

But in discussions on Sunday with three key board members -- Talev, incoming president Olivier Knox of SiriusXM and Jonathan Karl of ABC News -- several news organizations made clear that they would abandon their support next year if the comedy element isn't eliminated. People involved in the discussions said executives from Politico, CBS News and The Washington Post were among those urging the change.

"I think there was a feeling among a number of us that the comedian's routine was inconsistent with the values of the WHCA, which [seeks to] unify people at the dinner, not divide them," said one journalist familiar with the discussions. (He and others spoke on background because they aren't authorized to speak publicly.) Wolf "had every right to say what she wants. But the WHCA pays her to speak, and many people [in the public] don't see the distinction" between her views and those of the WHCA.

He added, "We're seeking a reset, a re-examination of the format from top to bottom. It's possible we won't support the dinner [next year]. We won't go through that again."

Comedians have performed at the dinner for decades, joining opera singers, jazz artists and radio and TV stars over the years, said George Condon, a former president of the association who is writing a history of it.

But in recent years, the WHCA has had trouble attracting top-flight names. A-list performers have been reluctant to take the gig because the pay - $10,000 for the night - is less than they'd make for a weekend stand elsewhere, said one person familiar with the negotiations. (The payment apparently hasn't changed since 1994, when future senator Al Franken received $10,000 for his performance, said Condon.)

What's more, a performer also must create material for the evening that can't really be recycled into an ongoing stand-up act.

"The pay is chicken feed," said one journalist active in the WHCA. "It's not competitive. So we get less-established comedians. What are their incentives to play nice? They have every incentive not to kowtow and to show future booking agents how aggressive and edgy they can be. It's good for them, not us. . . . Our alternative is to just take [the comedian] out of evening."

Condon also points out that young comedians aren't very likely to be Trump-friendly, ensuring that the evening will have a partisan feel to it. This is especially true since Trump has declined to attend and therefore isn't around to offer his own zingers, as other presidents have done.

Among options under discussion by the WHCA are replacing the comic with a musical performer, although that, too, has proved problematic in the past. A series of what Condon called "excruciatingly bad" acts from the late 1960s to early 1980s - ranging from the Mike Curb Congregation to the Disneyland Golden Horseshoe Revue - led the association to phase out musical performances from the program. Even legendary performers like Ray Charles, who headlined in 2003, couldn't hold the chattering room's attention, he said.

A comedian has performed at every event continuously since 1983, with the exceptions of 2003 and 1999, when Aretha Franklin entertained.

But the comic tradition may have ended with Wolf on Saturday. Said one longtime board member: "A dinner without a comedian does sound boring, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm a defender of the dinner. I believe the dinner is important. . . . If that's the price of preserving it, it's worthwhile."
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