Controversy came for Michelle Wolf. The comedian and soon-to-be talk show host inflamed politicians and media folk alike this weekend with her 20-minute set at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. The flames got so hot, in fact, that the White House Correspondents Association, the night's host, released a statement condemning Wolf's remarks.
"Last night's program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people," the statement reads. "Unfortunately, the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of that mission."
This is not the first time the "mission" of the entertainer has diverged from the mission of the evening, which is, ostensibly, unity. The dinner inspires almost routine pearl-clutching from its attendants. It's just that this year – the second of the Trump era – the White House Correspondents Association apologised for the pearls clutched.
The offensive jokes in question were at the expense of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Wolf compared her to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) of The Handmaid's Tale, a gloomy villain with a taste for — how to put this? — discipline. Wolf also joked that Sanders uses the ashes of truth and honesty as eyeshadow. Both were roundabout ways of calling Sanders a corrupt liar, a term that comes up with stunning frequency in regards to this administration.
The ensuing brouhaha around Wolf's remarks is remarkably contentious, and not split on partisan lines, either. Maggie Haberman, a New York Times reporter covering the White House, called Sanders brave for sitting through the jokes, which Haberman found to be too ad hominem. Kumail Nanjiani, the comedian best known for The Big Sick, questioned this sentiment on Twitter, and some semi-celebrity Twitter drama unfolded. (Haberman blocked Nanjiani.) Various celebrities have since come forward in support of Wolf, including Rosie O'Donnell, Kathy Griffin, and Seth Meyers. Given the relationship between the free press and the current administration — Trump did not attend the event, as he did last year — the whole affair feels dangerously tense. But it's not necessarily more fraught than years past.
The White House Correspondents Dinner is already awkward. It's journalist prom, as well as an opportunity for correspondents to down shrimp cocktail alongside their most perplexing allies: politicians. The press covers the White House; the White House uses the press to deliver information to the public. These two entities don't necessarily get along, but they do depend on one another, like barnacles and one very powerful whale. A dinner together isn't the best idea, but it's glamorous, and it's all going to air on C-SPAN! Hollywood's highest often attend, from supermodels to figures like George Clooney and Lawrence Fishbourne (even Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber attended in 2010).
The real wrench in the dinner is the entertainer, who is at least in part intended to create controversy. The White House Correspondents Association first hired entertainers to perform at the event in 1944, when a number of comedians as well as a 40-piece orchestra performed at the event. This impressive performance eventually whittled itself down to one comedian, who usually performs a 15-20 minute set of jokes at the expense of those in attendance. With some notable exceptions — Aretha Franklin performed in 1999 alongside the journalist Brian Williams — the dinner has consistently employed a comedian for each dinner since 1983. The dinners became a television program in 1993, when the ceremony was first aired on C-SPAN.
The White House Correspondents Dinner hit its biggest controversy in 2006, when Stephen Colbert hosted during the Bush administration. Colbert was, at the time, an A-minus-to-B-level comedian and host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Colbert performed in character as a conservative blowhard (a loose take on Bill O'Reilly, some would say), and it's still not clear who invited him to the White House to confront conservatives in person. Colbert performed the monologue entirely in character, i.e. insulting the very administration through an impressive circuitous satire. He didn't get a lot of laughs. He did get the last laugh, though. He was the Trojan Horse, sneaking into a boozy affair to lampoon the very people being celebrated. Fox and Friends pundit Steve Doocy wrote at the time that he thought Colbert went "over the line of what is appropriate when a sitting president is sitting four feet away." Most people thought Colbert had bombed, although Slate popped in to defend the comedian's performance. In 2015, years after the speech occurred, Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza wrote that it was "the most controversial Correspondents' Dinner ever." The WHCA did not make an apology on Colbert's behalf.
Other hosts have caused ruckuses, like when 2011 host Seth Meyers demeaned a (then) non-candidate Donald Trump for running for president.
"Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as as republican, which is surprising, because I thought he was running as a joke," Meyers mused to boos from the crowd. Some have speculated — Meyers included — that this type of needling is what ultimately motivated Trump to run for president in 2016. (It wasn't.) Trump was upset, naturally, but the joke seemed to offend him and him alone.
In 2016, Larry Wilmore used the n-word during his monologue, prompting the White House correspondent April D. Ryan to write an op-ed declaring it an "insult" to Black journalists. Wilmore also took the opportunity to critique President Barack Obama for his weapons strategy, joking that Obama and the basketball player Steph Curry both like to "rain bombs" from far away. Another joke about Wolf Blitzer appeared to anger the crowd. Wilmore said in an interview that he knew the "room" didn't like his material.
"I think it came off harsher than how I had initially intended it...because I saw all of this as a roast, really," he told the Daily Beast. "[I was] just trying to be snarky about it, but it came across pretty cold-blooded." In the same interview, he cited Colbert's 2006 performance.
"I mean, people forget that at the time, it was not nice at all when [Colbert] did that set—and his was almost like performance art. I still feel like it was arguably one of the bravest performances," he said. The WHCA did not ask Wilmore to apologise for any remarks he made at the dinner.
Arguably, the WHCD is designed to provoke – and the people attending the event are now expected to report on controversies in real time. The Great Michelle Wolf Controversy of 2018 started, in part, when a Times reporter panned her Sanders jokes on Twitter. MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski (of Morning Joe) helped the controversy proliferate when she tweeted her own condemnation of the jokes. The matter then gained traction because Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a semi-sympathetic conservative white woman, was at its core. A number of journalists complained that Wolf made fun of Sanders' appearance, a shot considered to be "too low" for the evening's standard. (Meyers, in comparison, spent a good chunk of his Trump roasting mocking Trump's hair, but that wasn't the focus of his controversy.)
"Why are you guys making this about Sarah’s looks? I said she burns facts and uses the ash to create a *perfect* smoky eye. I complimented her eye makeup and her ingenuity of materials," Wolf herself pointed out on Twitter.
Wolf's defenders have argued that criticising Sanders is the least Wolf can do, considering the broader injuries inflicted by the Trump administration. What's a little joke on eyeshadow when the President himself once said, "I moved on her like a bitch"? Sanders is complicit in an administration that is deliberately non communicative — Rex Tillerson discovered he was fired via tweet, never forget — and it's important she be held accountable.
The details, Wolf has discovered, don't matter. The WHCD is bound to erupt, like baking soda and vinegar in a DC hotel. What's bewildering is that, in 2018, after 25 years of a televised dinner, the WHCA decided to apologise. And that actually is the Big Bad Wolf.