Conan and the Comedian-in-Chief in a night of acceptable truth-telling
I’ve given funny, satirical speeches before. And while a steady stream of laughs is the objective, it’s like baseball. Stringing together some titters and chortles is like bunting your way to victory. It helps if you can hit a few home runs, too.
In comedy, the home run is the laugh that goes ten seconds plus. You get a crowd to laugh for a solid ten seconds or more and you’ve struck a nerve.
On Saturday at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, by my clock, the amateur funnyman, Barack Obama, seemed to outpoint the professional, Conan O’Brien.
I felt for Conan.
Following the president is tough, especially when you consider it’s the president, and anything he says you know will be different from the norm and an incongruous surprise. How nasty would he be about his GOP opponents like Boehner or McConnell? You’d never hear that on a workday in the Rose Garden. But on WHCD night, that’s called built-in laughter.
What does Conan have? People expect him to be funny. Maybe he should have had the masturbating bear play a DC wildlife lobbyist.
Conan’s best jokes keyed in on the popular targets of the night: The GOP/Obama stalemate on issues, and the media.
The first, he set up with a joke that failed.
“I believe we have one or two Supreme Court justices here. The Supreme Court seems divided over same-sex marriage. The liberal justices favor it, while the conservatives oppose any life-long sacred union between two men—unless, of course, it is Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.”
It got four seconds of tepid laughter, bordering on boos. Like good satire, it made some uncomfortable. But it made Conan uncomfortable too. He saved the joke by acknowledging it. “What the hell was that?” he asked, which milked another two seconds of laughter from disaster.
But then it got sexual, and set up the big laugh.
“No surprise that Speaker John Boehner isn’t here tonight. Speaker Boehner and President Obama are still struggling to get along. President Obama and John Boehner are kind of like a blind date between Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow.”
That image alone gets :03 seconds of laughter, but Conan cut into it immediately.
“In theory, they understand each other’s positions, but deep down, you know nothing’s ever going to happen.”
It was his biggest laugh.
The audience apparently didn’t want to get into a gay thing with Scalia and Thomas, but the Boehner/Obama thing is OK juxtaposed with a gay fantasy overlay of Cooper/Maddow.
It released some sexual tension that scored big laughs.
The other joke Conan scored with targeted the media by comparing the WHCD to a high school cafeteria: “Think about it, Fox is the jocks. MSNBC is the Nerds. Bloggers are the Goths. NPR is the table for kids with peanut allergies.”
Roar, applause, laughter, :12 seconds worth.
People love to hate those precious folks at NPR. I do too.
And his use of perfect Spanish to foretell a WHCD in the future with President Mario Lopez was a funny poke at our changing demographics.
But none of those got ten seconds or more of solid laughs. Considering that Conan got just :28 seconds of applause at the end of his entire act, those two moments were real standouts.
The president, on the other hand, had a lot more :10 second plus moments.
Some of his best lines were the self-deprecating ones off sight gags.
Over a picture of him on the cover of a senior magazine playing golf, he quipped: “These days I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be.”
On another sight gag, Obama with a new hairdo–Michelle’s bangs–gets :15 full seconds, with another :12 as he milked the gag.
His other biggest laughs dealt with other sore subjects.
I know CNN has taken some knocks lately, but the fact is I admire their commitment to cover all sides of a story, just in case one of them happens to be accurate.” (laughter and applause)
The fact is I really do respect the press. I recognize that the press and I have different jobs to do. My job is to be President; your job is to keep me humble. Frankly, I think I’m doing my job better. (laughter and applause)
There are other new players in the media landscape as well, like super PACs. Did you know that Sheldon Adelson spent $100 million of his own money last year on negative ads? You’ve got to really dislike me –(laughter)– to spend that kind of money. I mean, that’s Oprah money. (laughter) You could buy an island and call it “Nobama” for that kind of money. (laughter) Sheldon would have been better off offering me $100 million to drop out of the race. (laughter and applause) I probably wouldn’t have taken it, but I’d have thought about it. (laughter) Michelle would have taken it. (laughter) You think I’m joking? (laughter)
I know Republicans are still sorting out what happened in 2012, but one thing they all agree on is they need to do a better job reaching out to minorities. And look, call me self-centered, but I can think of one minority they could start with. (laughter) Hello? Think of me as a trial run, you know? (laughter) See how it goes. (laughter)
Of course, even after I’ve done all this, some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” they ask. Really? (laughter) Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell? (laughter and applause) I’m sorry. I get frustrated sometimes.
I am not giving up. In fact, I’m taking my charm offensive on the road–a Texas barbeque with Ted Cruz, a Kentucky bluegrass concert with Rand Paul, and a book-burning with Michele Bachmann. (laughter and applause)
The president was killing it. Freud would say he was just letting his repressed side out for a little air.
You can bet he’d never be this publicly truthful without the cover of the WHCD. And that’s the value of these dinners.
It’s become in vogue to criticize the WHCD these days by saying it’s overrun with celebrities who make the event seem cheap and undignified.
But that’s precisely what makes the event and Washington fun for a change.
In my days in Washington, the WHCDs I went to were so boring, the only big stars were the network anchormen. Nothing wrong with sidling next to “Modern Family” stars Sofia Vergara or Julie Bowen? Or attendees like PSY or Daniel Dae Kim?
If there’s legit criticism, it’s that all of it seems a bit too clubby and elitist, distant from the regular folks, overworked, underpaid, watching on C-SPAN on a Saturday night.
And even Obama recognized that as he closed, humbly:
Those of us in this room tonight, we are incredibly lucky. And the fact is, we can do better — all of us. Those of us in public office, those of us in the press, those who produce entertainment for our kids, those with power, those with influence–all of us, including myself, we can strive to value those things that I suspect led most of us to do the work that we do in the first plac –because we believed in something that was true, and we believed in service, and the idea that we can have a lasting, positive impact on the lives of the people around us.
And that’s our obligation. That’s a task we should gladly embrace on behalf of all of those folks who are counting on us; on behalf of this country that’s given us so much.
Yes, they could even have done better on this night, too. Something’s wrong when the king is better than the jester.
For as funny as some of it was, it was still too chummy and not aggressively hostile enough to reach that divine satirical state that would only be described as “truthier.”
In the end, what we got was funny enough.
It’s still more truth than is normally uttered in Washington.