Gene Seymour: Larry Wilmore hosted, but Barack Obama owned the Correspondents' Dinner
He says his zingers, comic timing remind us Obama pulls off these nights better than anyone
Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
Well, I’ll be. Who’d have thought it’d take another black comedian to make white people feel more comfortable about having a black president around them?
We kid, because we care. But do we exaggerate?
If the immediate reaction to the dueling African-American jokesmiths at Saturday night’s 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner is any indication, Barack Obama scored higher with the movers, shakers and screen stars in the Washington Hilton ballroom than this year’s host, Larry Wilmore, who presides over Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show.”
The second reaction: Take a picture, because we won’t be seeing this kind of high-quality presidential comedy again anytime soon.
So who hit the most home runs? A lot depends on whether you were sitting in the bleachers (at home) or in the luxury boxes (in person). Because it was somehow clearer to those watching the event on TV that Wilmore’s acerbic jibes against pundits and politicians were aimed beyond the glitterati and toward those who have come to expect such corrosive wit on cable comedy shows.
Early on, Wilmore fired at will at Obama, who preceded him onstage (and to whose routine we’ll come in a few tics). “It looks like you’re enjoying your last year of your presidency. Saw you hangin’ out with NBA players like Steph Curry (shooting star of the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors) … Kinda makes sense, too, because both of you like rainin’ down bombs from long distances. …” More growling, grunting. “What? Am I wrong?”
Wilmore knew then and there he had a tough crowd, but he pressed on, trusting his material, even variations on Obama’s-hair-is-graying schtick. “The President’s hair is so white, it keeps saying, ‘all lives matter.’ OK, fine I get it,” said Wilmore. “You came in lookin’ like Denzel (Washington) and now you’re leaving looking like Grady from ‘Sanford and Son.’”
The young wonks at the dinner tables may not have gotten that ‘70s reference. But Obama did. And so did black TV audiences throughout the country who, if you perused black Twitter followers’ responses, thought Wilmore was doing pretty much the same droll, sarcastic beat-downs he’s been delivering every weeknight.
(The “Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” riff did threaten to be driven into the ground, but let’s keep going here.)
As for the Other Black Wit, the one who came on before Wilmore? Let’s put it this way: Say whatever you want about Harvard, but they’ve produced some funny Presidents of these here United States!
Seriously. Think of FDR, JFK and, perhaps best of all, that Barack Obama fellow who’s been killing it at these things since he first got the starring role. It makes you imagine how Rutherford B. Hayes (Harvard Law, 1845) must have left them howling for more on the 1876 campaign trail.
“Sorry I was late,” Obama began his eighth and final Correspondents’ Dinner shtick. “I was running on CPT … which means ‘jokes that white people should not make.’ ”
Referring to his recent trip to Britain: “I did have lunch with the Queen … played several rounds of golf and hit the links with David Cameron. In case anyone is still debating whether I’m black enough, I think that settles the debate.”
Maybe that was one of the ones you had to be there for. Take it from a witness: Do you think there’s anybody now running for his job who knows how to stand and deliver a one-liner with timing and dexterity?
Speaking of the Republicans, Obama was, as you can imagine, feeling it, talking about GOP dinner attendees asked to order steak or fish, but who instead kept choosing House Speaker Paul Ryan. Pause. Deadpan look. “That’s not an option, people.”
This was followed by a gentle piling-upon GOP candidate Ted Cruz calling a basketball hoop a “ring” while campaigning last week in Indiana (where basketball is a way of life). “What else is in his lexicon? Baseball ‘sticks’? Football ‘hats’?” And here came an effective coup de grace: “But sure, I’m the foreign one!”
For all the near-hysterical anticipation over an even more ferocious piling-on to Republican front-runner Donald Trump, the President paused on the presumptive nominee only briefly. His best zinger? When he told former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sitting in the audience, that it must kill him that there’s a multibillionaire running for president and it’s not him.
He made nifty hits at the Democrats competing for his job. Of that party’s front-runner, Hillary Clinton, he deadpanned: “Next year, somebody will be standing at this spot, and it’s anyone’s guess who she will be.”
Later on, he poked gentle fun at the former secretary of state by imagining her fumbling with Facebook controls.
To presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ campaign criticisms of Obama’s administration, the incumbent asked, in faux disappointment, “That’s not how you treat a comrade.”
He even reached back for a swipe at the previous administration, when he thanked his vice president, Joe Biden, for “not shooting anyone in the face,” a reference to the 2006 incident in which former Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting companion.
All told, it was good, but not great Obama shtick, though he’d already set a pretty high bar, especially after last year’s impeccably wrought tandem of the President and comic Keegan Michael-Key as Obama’s “real self.”
This year’s filmed routine with guest stars Joe Biden, Michelle Obama and John Boehner helping Obama cope with life after the presidency had its moments, but has been done much better. (Ever see the episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” where POTUS is riding in a car with Jerry Seinfeld?)
Yet, if you’ve watched Clinton, Trump, Sanders or anybody else out there slogging through what’s left of the primaries, you and I know we’re not going to see anybody pull ANY of these things off better than he does.
We can see Larry Wilmore be trenchant and sardonic any night of the week. But after next January, we’ll never see this guy work a room like this again. And whatever else you may think about him, you’ve got to find that a bit of a drag.
Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.