After months of being slammed by President Donald Trump himself for dealing in “fake news” and being a literal enemy of the American people, the media was honored on Saturday at Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” — a love letter of sorts to America's beleaguered journalists. Or to most of them, anyway.
Bee, the acerbic host of TBS’s Full Frontal, had her event staff wear shirts that said “Free Press,” donated $200,000 in proceeds from the evening to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and gave shoutouts to the staff of small local newspapers like the Flint Journal, which broke the story of the Michigan city’s lead-polluted water.
None of which is to suggest it was an evening of highbrow conversations about the importance of a free press. There was a bit of that, but Bee also took the opportunity to joke that “CNN gives you news like your shitty boyfriend gives you orgasms.”
The entire event — recorded Saturday afternoon to air that night — had a meta vibe. Rather than be the latest in a long line of comedians to needle a president at the actual White House Correspondents’ Dinner (Trump famously skipped this year's dinner), Bee skewered the entire conceit of the “other” event, with targets including — but definitely not limited to — the president himself.
Some of those targets were predictable. Fox chief Rupert Murdoch was described as a “sentient liver spot”; ousted Fox News chief Roger Ailes and more recently ousted Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly were described as “media titans who were snatched from us far, far too late.”
CNN, by contrast, was both praised and mocked — sometimes in the same joke. Bee did a pretaped segment with Jake Tapper and went out of her way to praise other CNN reporters like Dana Bash and Jim Acosta. Jeff Zucker, CNN’s top executive, wasn't as lucky, with Bee mocking him for comparing news to sports and filling CNN’s airwaves with so many partisan mouthpieces that it amounted to a “pundit infestation.”
When the event was first announced, Bee said she aimed to “toast the free press — while we still have one.” In her own uniquely profane way, that's exactly what she did.
Below are the winners and losers from an at times funny and at times deeply uneven show.
Winner: CNN (the reporters)
Bee did a pretaped segment with Tapper in which he jokingly interrogated her about her agenda for the evening and whether the paltry amount of food she was providing would disqualify it from being called a dinner (more on that below). Bee also went out of her way to praise other CNN reporters, including the aforementioned Bash and Acosta. When it came to Anderson Cooper, arguably the network’s biggest star, Bee said he needed to leave CNN’s filled studios, put on one of his trademark tight black T-shirts, and get back into the field.
Loser: CNN (the network)
Bee began a segment praising a local station in Atlanta by saying the city was home to some serious news gathering — and also to CNN. Bee, like many other late-night comics, played clip after clip of pundits shouting talking points at each other. She blamed that on Jeff Zucker, CNN’s top executive, whom she mocked for comparing news to sports and filling CNN’s airwaves with so many partisan mouthpieces that it amounted to a “pundit infestation.”
Winner: Full Frontal imagines an alternate timeline with “Woman in the High Castle”
The clip likeliest to go viral from “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” is a spoof of the Amazon series/Philip K. Dick novel The Man in the High Castle, in which an alternate-reality Bee performs at President Hillary Clinton’s first White House Correspondents’ Dinner (in this world, Republicans launched impeachment proceedings against her on day one).
Some of the jokes miss their mark — a line about Bill Clinton keeping a White House vegetable garden because he likes “hoeing around and planting seeds” landed with a thud — but Bee’s broader description of a world where female leaders are treated with respect and young girls know they can grow up to be anything they want manages to be both funny and a bit moving. The sketch also contains a good and suitably filthy joke about receiving a long voicemail from a masturbating O’Reilly.
Loser: Will Ferrell dusts off his Dubya impression
Throughout the show, Bee constantly teased the eventual appearance of a special guest, flashing onscreen chyrons such as “Special Guest’s Plane Now on Tarmac” in a jab at the overblown media anticipation that has surrounded many of President Trump’s press conferences. Said guest turned out to be Will Ferrell, who brought out his well-honed George W. Bush impression once again to misuse the word “prodigal” and cackle about no longer being considered the worst president in US history — a.k.a. the “Martin Van Buren of the 21st century.”
While Ferrell is always a welcome presence, the bit felt strangely stale and frankly a little sad. Pot shots at Trump’s historic unpopularity and unnatural skin hue are well-trod territory at this point, and seeing Ferrell-as-Bush back onstage was a sharp reminder of how much progress we haven’t made since the comedian coined his impression all those years ago.
Winner: the Committee to Protect Journalists
The CPJ had its own table at the very front of the room, and Bee and her correspondents praised the organization’s mission several times throughout the evening as a vital force in ensuring freedom of the press and maintaining true democracy. TBS also donated all its proceeds from ticket sales for “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” to the organization, which Bee said amounted to more than $200,000.
Loser: Bee’s roasts of presidents throughout history
Sprinkled throughout the show were pretaped bits of Bee roasting administrations past. From Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, Bee donned period-appropriate garb for each one and cracked jokes to (purposely lukewarm) reaction shots from actual White House Correspondents’ Dinners past.
Though Bee didn’t pull any punches (calling Nixon’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, a war criminal immediately before cutting to footage of Kissinger laughing jocularly felt especially pointed), the segments didn’t quite land — they lacked the immediacy and fury that animates Bee’s best bits, dulling their edge.
One notable exception: The last roast, set in the near future when America is led by President Mike Pence after Trump met his demise via getting his head stuck in a honey jar. Bee’s outfit of high-necked, long-sleeved nightgown and chastity belt, combined with her terrified mumbled apology after every joke, added up to something both funny and rather chilling. “We may have gotten rid of Trump,” this hypothetical future seems to say, “but look what we’ve landed ourselves in instead.”
Loser: The “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” catering company
No one could accuse “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” of false advertising — not only was it not the traditional White House Correspondents’ Association event, but it also wasn’t really a dinner (VIP attendees got taco salad; the rest were lucky to snag an hors d’oeuvre or two). And somewhat ironically for an event celebrating members of the media, while the main entrance featured full bars, the feted press got small bags of popcorn and beer in plastic cups.
Loser: Tiffany Trump
Will the indignities heaped upon Trump’s youngest daughter never cease? During a segment skewering the president’s symbiotic relationship with Fox News (we believe Bee’s exact phrasing was “long-distance circle jerk”), Full Frontal astutely noted that Trump has tweeted more about Fox News since taking office than he has about Tiffany ... ever. The observation drew an audible “Aww” from the audience — though perhaps it’s par for the course for a man who seems to subscribe to the Lucille Bluth school of parenting.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” is streaming on YouTube.