President Trump caused a bit of a storm last week when he hinted on Twitter that he may – finally – make an appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. His conspicuous absence at each annual event since taking office has certainly taken the varnish off the association. In contrast to President Obama’s stunningly strategic use of stand-up comedy on an annual basis, his successor has refused to appear since taking office. His absence at the Correspondents’ Dinner has undoubtedly compounded his fake media reputation even further with his supporters, what The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch argues is a typical play to his “anti-élite base”. While there are very sound reasons for not appearing at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an event that more than any in the public eye epitomises the grotesque cosiness of press, political and Hollywood elites in the United States, there are probably less noble reasons for why the President doesn’t wish to make an appearance.
Trump’s ascendancy to the White House signals a very fascinating contrast; there has never been a presidential candidate / president who has been so imbued with comic and satirical elements, yet so cautious to perform it formally while in office. Indeed, his saturation of comic elements during the 2016 election left American comedy essentially paralysed and exceptionally out-satirised by his bombastic nature. Additionally, Trump’s rallies have often been compared to stand-up comedy events, with comedian and Trump impersonator Anthony Atamanuik arguing during the election campaign that the president’s rallies were akin to “semi-improvised stand-up routines” and the President as “an open-micer who somehow made it to the top.” Likewise, in Mark Chou and Michael Ondaatje’s dramaturgical analysis, they argued that Trump seemed to approach the campaign trail “as if it were a stage for his foul-mouthed comedic routine”, and Kira Hall, Donna M. Goldstein and Matthew Bruce Ingram’s examination of his use of gestures argued it was one that gave Trump the air of a comedic entertainer rather than a conventional politician.
Since taking office however, Trump has been hesitant to do comedy within agreed, conventional spaces, preferring to leave his quips to G20 meetings and taking press questions with Angela Merkel. This is especially true when it comes to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an event that, remarkably, epitomises the kind of cultural antithesis to Trump’s Republican base that would score him major points if he ever attended, a veritable David vs. Goliath situation. Whether or not Trump landed a zinger (the press’ coverage would be pretty predictable regarding this), his lambasting of the Washington press would be the rallying point of the year for his supporters. The potential is only heightened given how much press coverage hypothesised it was President Obama’s merciless roasting of Trump at the 2011 Correspondents’ Dinner that led the businessman to run for president in 2016. Given the popularity of Obama’s confrontation of Trump, with nearly 20 million views on YouTube, the gladiatorial qualities of his comic return to the association would be epical.
However, Trump’s first, recorded, formal stand-up comedy performance would require a pretty substantial revision from himself and his White House writing team. While he is certainly highly comical, his ability to perform stand-up comedy is largely untested. Trump seems to work best in subverting and shocking the parameters of already set, conventional arenas, whether they be forms of standard political etiquette, presidential debates, or press briefings. I believe his staff would be less confident if he worked within the agreed unpredictability of a stand-up performance alongside a professional comedian. Furthermore, unlike the more polite offerings of previous presidents and their private disagreements with the press that were usually left unspoken, Trump’s acerbic relationship with the media would leave his audience salivating for a badly delivered joke.
Given Trump’s caution at trying his hand at stand-up, it was surprising to read that the White House Correspondents’ Association will be changing its traditional comedy act next year with historian Ron Chernow, who is set to provide a lecture on the freedom of the press. While I’m sure Chernow will be worth listening to, the ratings for the event will surely tank in lieu of a stand-up comic. However, given the mixed reception comedian Michelle Wolf got for her headline performance at this year’s dinner, the association was on the backfoot, and ended up apologising for what it saw as Wolf steering away from the cuddly, unifying press message the dinner aims to promote. It’s a similar strategy that the Correspondents’ Association performed in the wake of Stephen Colbert’s comic evisceration of the Bush administration in 2007, where in response to the backlash the performance they received, the association recruited the cruise-line comedy of Rich Little to perform at the next year’s event. However, given Trump’s arguable hesitation to deliver zingers alongside a professional comedian, the membership’s thinking may be that, to get Trump on the list, it’s easier to follow a history lesson on the press than a readied Greenwich comic.
While the Correspondents’ Association will be incentivised by concerns to host another event without POTUS (akin to the upset caused by President Obama’s regular refusal to appear at the Gridiron Club Dinner), another reason why they chose to take comedy off the menu for next year is that the Washington press came out of its last dinner far more bruised than it was expecting. It goes without saying that comedian Michelle Wolf’s monologue at the 2018 Correspondents’ Dinner was comic gold, and easily stands as one of the best stand-up performances in the event’s history.
Furthermore, it seemed to take aim more at the press than it did at the President in satirising the media’s obsession with Trump, joking that its incessant coverage had less to do with protecting the health of the fourth estate than it did with hawking book tours for CNN anchors, her revulsion at a perfectly self-serving and deliciously lucrative pundit economy. As Wolf argued during her performance, “You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.” The thin-skinned nature of the Washington press would not have taken these jabs lightly. While its membership boiled with grinning anger at President Obama’s excoriations of the press during his own stand-up comedy performances, Wolf’s exposure of the sclerotic, elitist personalities of the Washington Press was one they could do without.
With the association going out of its way to accommodate Trump with this move, once again, the biggest issue will be whether Trump can actually perform a stand-up comedy performance. And not just perform it, but nail it. Certainly the association is not known among comedians for being an easy room, and Wolf notes that she went into her monologue with that in mind. However, the frostiness of Michelle Wolf’s audience was always irrelevant. As she argues, it was never about catering to the press, but “to the outside audience”. What mattered was the performance’s reception beyond the walls of the Correspondents’ Dinner, which, given its enormous coverage, is substantial. Much like his dealings with the press in everyday life, Trump would be courting the same strategy, and speaking to his own base through stand-up comedy if he chooses to give it a shot next year. And for that reason, the benefits Trump could reap for adopting the role of stand-up comedian are currently in his favour.