“This has been one of the strangest events I've ever done in my life,” Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj said late in his set at Saturday’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner, before going on to say he felt like a tribute in the Hunger Games, waiting to see “if Steve Bannon is going to eat me.”
It was part of a good, but odd, performance from the comedian, who was hampered by the fact that the person he spent the most time making fun of — President Donald Trump himself — wasn’t in the room. (For his part, Trump accused the media of spreading “fake news” and said they deserved a “big fat failing grade” during a rally for supporters the same evening in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.)
Though Minhaj did comment on Trump and his staff, he aimed much of his ammo at the news media itself, particularly the three biggest cable news networks and, oddly, USA Today. (There was an extended riff early on about how terrible USA Today is that seemed to turn the room against Minhaj from the get-go.)
The media, and its inability to accurately read the American public in the lead-up to the 2016 election, was a big part of Minhaj’s set. “It was like walking into Panera Bread and finding out your sixth grade teacher has a part-time job there,” Minhaj said of the media on election night. “What? Mr. Leddington? I guess you don't have all the answers!” (Later, he said the media covering Trump after covering Obama was like a bunch of stripper cops having to solve a real mystery.)
In particular, Minhaj unloaded on MSNBC and CNN. (Fox News received a few zingers but may seem like too easy a target in the wake of Bill O’Reilly’s recent firing.) MSNBC’s long marathons of the show Lockup earned the joke, “You can't be mad at corporations profiting off minorities in prison when you're a corporation profiting off minorities in prison.”
But CNN provoked the most opprobrium from the comedian, especially when it came to the network’s hyperactive inability to sit still when telling a major news story. (Of its predilection for bringing up lots of screens at the drop of a hat, Minhaj said, “I'm trying to watch the news, not pick a player in Street Fighter.”)
Yet it wasn’t as if Trump’s White House didn’t come in for its own scathing commentary. Minhaj, who is Muslim, particularly played off the fact that he was hosting in the first year of Trump’s presidency. (“Welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondent’s Dinner!” was his very first joke.)
Everyone from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to Energy Secretary Rick Perry to Ivanka Trump to Sean Spicer was the butt of a joke or two or seven. (My favorite was Minhaj’s riff on Ivanka, which concluded with him saying he wouldn’t endorse his father for president, because he tries to return used underwear to Costco.)
And Trump was the focus of much of Minhaj’s early material, especially a funny bit on how Trump doesn’t drink — which means that every thing he says, and especially all those tweets, are composed completely sober. Who tweets at 3 am while sober? Minhaj asked. Trump.
Though Trump laid into the dinner, Minhaj’s conclusion argued that its greatest usefulness was in showing that nobody in America — not even the president — is above the powers of the first amendment. And whether that takes the form of journalists investigating him, or comedians mocking him, it doesn’t matter. The Constitution protects their rights to do just that. And for Minhaj, that makes the WHCD worth it.
You can watch his entire set above. (Should the embedded video not jump to the right time code, Minhaj’s remarks begin at 52:19.)