Colin Jost Charms, Biden Campaigns at Rule-Breaking ‘Nerd Prom’

The entertainment offered at a White House Correspondents Dinner is always graded on a curve, and it deserves to be.

The President (when the White House is occupied by someone who can take a joke and shows up) is never going to get offers from the Main Room at Caesar’s Palace the morning after his after-dinner set; and the professional comic (almost always late-night-connected) is aware he/she is telling jokes to a group not exactly sure when or how much to laugh.

That tends to make it hard to induce truly explosive laughs.

Colin Jost had the additional challenge last night of performing slightly out of his element: his jokes on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live are almost always backed by some joke-enhancing illustration. No graphics available in the Washington Hilton ballroom.

Most of the comic performers who have headlined the dinner have later said that a) they were more nervous than they believed they would be; b) the room is cavernous and not conducive to the generous laughter that bounces off the low ceilings of comedy clubs; and c) expectations for the comedy are unnaturally high.

Jost defied most of that, putting up a solid score in terms of overall laughs, and riding his best ones through several seconds of rolling laughter (even some clapter). Such as: referencing how one candidate in this year’s race now owes half a billion dollars and is “farting himself awake during a porn-star hush money trial–and the race is TIED?” And: “The candidate who is a famous New York City playboy took abortion rights away and the guy trying to give you your abortion rights back in an 80-year-old Catholic. How does that make sense?”

He also wisely limited his Biden age jokes, which made them more effective– as when he seasoned a joke about how his native Staten Island supported the British in the Revolutionary War, with the aside, “You remember, Mr. President.”

A double age joke worked especially well, when he said the concern about both candidates age was so great that Jimmy Carter (age 99) was sure he could beat both these guys.

Jost also relied on his can’t-miss high card: his personal appeal. He conveyed charm throughout, and played his appeal especially well late in the set in references to his wife, the movie star Scarlett Johansson, and how she’d just love to greet every single person in the room (fat chance); and his grandfather, a former Staten Island firefighter, who passed away this year.

The latter reference came with what surely sounded like an endorsement of President Biden (guaranteed to enflame the already permanently aroused hackles of conservatives who will howl about the “liberal Hollywood elite” being in the bag for Democrats). His conservative grandfather voted for Biden in 2020, Jost said, on the basis that Biden is “a decent man.”

One unwritten rule of the dinner is that the skewering must always been bipartisan, although the present President is expected to be the central target. Jost landed a series of pointed jokes about the guy he sat next to chewing steak on the dais: about the erosion of Biden’s support among black viewers; about cocaine pumping up his State of the Union performance; and of course about his age. He poked fun several times at Biden having trouble negotiating airplane stairs and other kinds of stairs

But Donald Trump took heavier incoming: “Can we acknowledge how refreshing it is to see a President of the United States at an event that doesn’t begin with a Bailiff saying ‘All rise?’ ”

Another unwritten rule of the dinner is the President’s remarks are to be humorous, not rancorous: no campaigning allowed. Biden not only unloaded some loaded jokes about Trump–“He’s been through a tough stretch, Stormy weather”–he also openly campaigned during a portion of his address, noting a “defeated former president has made no secret of his attack on our democracy,” and urging the media to take up his campaign’s overarching theme: Defending democracy against Trump.

But nothing about politics or comedy is the same as it once was, so why would this dinner be? Especially because this is an election year with an added circumstance rarer than a solar eclipse: two candidates who are both addressed as president. Benjamin Harrison didn’t have to worry about unwritten dinner rules being broken on C-Span when he ran second time against Grover Cleveland.

So no one should have been surprised when Bided landed his biggest laugh at Trump’s expense when he said the only thing they had in common was their similar age but at least for Biden, “my vice president actually endorses me.”

Nor perhaps that he even went after other Republicans. Biden said some people think Congress is just political theater. Not true, Biden said. “If Congress were theater, they would have gotten rid of Lauren Boebert long ago.” (Who can forget the congresswoman’s memorable performance in the audience during the musical “Beetlejuice”?)

Jost for his part took a shot at a Republican congressman, noting that the dinner is often called “Nerd Prom,” while “Matt Gaetz is at regular prom.” (Who can forget Gaetz’s alleged dates with a high school girl?)

About the only target that was mostly bypassed was over-eager would-be Trump running mate, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, all over the news this weekend for excerpts from her memoir about shooting her dog and goat when she deemed them unmanageable. (Prior to the dinner coverage, CNN anchors John Berman and Sara Sidner did perform an impressive dramatic reading of Noem’s killing spree.)

But Jost has to get back to work on SNL starting Monday. A lovely photo of a wirehaired pointer will make even a week-late joke more effective next Saturday.

1 Comment

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  1. Jeff says:

    Jost is, as I’ve said before, this generation’s Johnny Carson. NBC should lock him up and groom him for something big in the near future. Fallon is warm milk, consistently outquipped by political monologues by Colbert and Kimmel. Jost would put NBC back in the late night conversation and away from the glad handing overly enthusiastic Fallon.