Last week, members of the White House Press Correspondents’ Association decided to eliminate the tradition of including stand-up routine at the annual Press Correspondents’ Dinner, known often as Nerd Prom™. For years, comedians such as Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Jon Stewart, and Larry Wilmore have lampooned presidents and the press alike. However, something changed in the last year which has caused the Association to take drastic measures. Some have argued that the cause of this change is due to the President’s attendance, or lack thereof, but I believe the root of this issue to be something different, and something dangerous to the rhetorical powers of free speech in this country. I believe that because of Michelle Wolf’s controversial 2018 performance, the WHPCA is eliminating comedy from its line-up to avoid further controversy. This is wrong, not only because it is entertaining, but because comedy and humoristic rhetoric is perhaps one of the greatest uses of our free speech rights.
Nerd Prom™ has been the subject of controversy in the past for its biting comedic rhetoric. When Stephen Colbert, then host of the satirical Colbert Report, hosted the dinner in 2006, his contentious performance caused an uproar in the Bush Administration as well as in the papers. Colbert made fun of the Bush Administration’s lackadaisical response to global crises such as climate change, which Colbert joked, saying “we Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.” Colbert continued to mock the administration, saying that, no, the Bush White House was not rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic, but rather “they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!”
Because of such a controversial performance, the WHPCA booked a decidedly more “safe” choice for a comedic portion for 2007, choosing impersonator Rich Little to deliver a more palatable routine. The same can be seen for the response to Seth Meyers’ much-discussed performance, which some suggest may have inspired then-private citizen Donald Trump to run for President. After a controversial comedic routine, the WHPCA backs off and hires “safer” comedians. So, why then did the association decide to completely forgo the comedy portion?
By employing a comedian, the event instead becomes about using the First Amendment
Michelle Wolf’s set was notable for the amount of push-back she received from all sides of the issue. Not only was Wolf rebuked by the Trump Administration (unsurprisingly), but many members of the press, including the WHPCA itself, found her remarks distasteful. The Hill, a prominent DC news publication, has stated that they will no longer attend the annual dinner, saying “in short, there is simply no reason for us to participate in something that casts our profession in a poor light.” These comments are likely in response to Wolf’s remarks on the press, which, as she joked, “love Trump” because his antics make fodder from which journalists can profit.
I am interested neither in defending nor criticizing Wolf’s remarks because I feel that ignores the spirit of the evening. The Press Correspondents’ Dinner is meant to be a celebration of free speech. And while it would likely be easier for the WHPCA to speak about the First Amendment (as they will for the 2019 dinner by hiring historian Ron Chernow), by employing a comedian, the event instead becomes about using the First Amendment, perhaps pushing it to points with which people are not yet comfortable. Comedians have always been pushing the bar for what we can and cannot say. Comedy’s better moments pushing this envelope include George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”; while some of comedy’s worst moments come from instances where comedians say the absolute worst things (read: Michael Richards). I can’t say whether Wolf’s comments were appropriate, nor can I ensure that a comedian in the future won’t be more controversial, but the purpose of comedy as a medium of art is to allow the boundaries of free speech to be explored. By eliminating the comedy portion from the dinner, the WHPCA has done a disservice to the state of free speech in this country, and it’s going to take someone very, very funny to convince them otherwise.