Imitation and Satire at the Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner

Samantha Bee’s shadow version of Washington’s gala event was a perfect alternative fact of the real thing.

Bee, playing the role of host and roaster-in-chief during her version of the Washington tradition (Molly Berry / Turner / TBS)

WASHINGTON, D.C.“Are you guys having an okay time? Are you drunk?”

Samantha Bee, on Saturday afternoon, was a few segments in to the comedic experiment she and her team at TBS had dubbed the Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Bee—energized by an all-woman punk band and surrounded by flags, podiums, columns, and other such symbolic decorations of the American presidency—was working the concert stage of the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, just down the street from the White House, where the president was not at the time because he was instead in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, staging his own alternative to the traditional Correspondents’ Dinner.

Bee’s crowd, it turned out, was having a more than okay time. They whooped in reply to their host’s question. They applauded, loudly. “We love you, Ashley!” a group of women screamed from the concert hall’s nosebleed section, as the Full Frontal writer and correspondent Ashley Nicole Black took the stage for the first of her cameos in the show.

When Full Frontal had announced, shortly after the inauguration of President Trump, that Bee would be staging a shadow Correspondents’ Dinner, she emphasized first that the event was really happening (“We’re really doing this. This is not a joke”), and second that the show would be a relatively high-minded affair. “The evening is sure to bring plenty of surprises, music, food, and laughter—and if you’re not careful you just might learn something,” TBS announced. “Specifically, you’ll learn how screwed we’d be without a free press.”

Bee made good on her promise. The event she put on—performed for a crowd of more than 2,500, for an episode of Full Frontal set to air on Saturday night, at roughly the same time as the official Correspondents’ Dinner—was indeed both real and, in its way, very serious. And also: very funny. On the agenda were jokes about the president who is, and about the president who might have been, and about Breitbart and Pepe the Frog and Bill O’Reilly and the questionable humor of New Yorker cartoons; philosophical inquiries into the nature of Fact and the true pronunciation of “Steve Buscemi”; and a series of cameos by celebrities you might expect to appear at such an event (Allison Janney, Will Ferrell, Andy Richter) and celebrities you might not (Norman Lear).

Threaded throughout the hour-long show, however, were also extremely earnest tributes to the work journalists do, in the world and within the United States. “Without a free press,” Bee told the crowd, at the outset of the non-WHCD, “we wouldn’t have a functioning democracy.”

The crowd whooped again. Bee added: “As much as I love making fun of the press … you carry on. You continue to fact-check the president as if he may some day get embarrassed.” More whooping. Janney appeared, in a pre-recorded segment, as a C.J. Cregg-esque press secretary, sparring with trolls, and concluding her appearance with a tribute to the First Amendment. The show made (mostly playful) jabs at CNN’s pundit-centered approach to the news, and at Teen Vogue’s political awakening, and at Buzzfeed’s publishing of the Trump/Russia dossier. Not the White House Correspondentss Dinner was precisely what Bee had promised it would be: an event about journalism, for journalists, realized through some very good comedy. We want to feed them and give them hugs.

It was also an event that took its name, all in all, quite literally: The Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in the onstage show filmed for TV but even more so in the in-person moments not intended for airing, carried a distinct alternate-reality vibe. And not just in another pre-recorded segment, reminiscent of The Man in the High Castle, considering what life would be like right now had Clinton won the presidential election. On Saturday, the time-tested mechanics of the Correspondents’ Dinner itself—the #nerdprom, as it’s known in D.C., with both affection and side-eye—were applied to the shadow version of that event.

Bee’s #NotTheWHCD featured, as the #WHDC would later that evening, a red carpet, populated variously by Washington celebrities (Jake Tapper, Van Jones, Dan Froomkin), and by celebrities of a more traditional strain (Padma Lakshmi, Alia Shawkat, Matthew Modine). People showed up in black tie and several creative takes on it. (One woman sported a “HYSTERICAL FEMALE” t-shirt with a full ball skirt.) Guests nibbled on passed hors d’oeuvre—steak skewers, macaroni-and-cheese bites, goat cheese-and-olive arancini—outside the DAR building, sipping drinks obtained from one of several open bars, taking selfies, sneaking furtive are-they-famous glances at their fellow attendees, and subtly dabbing their faces with cocktail napkins in the soggy Washington heat.

It was a preemptive version, essentially, of what would take place, a couple miles uptown, later that day. Inside the anti-Correspondent’s Dinner venue, the TBS staff had even removed the seats from the orchestra section of the DAR hall, replacing them with the same circular tables that would be used by the Washington Hilton for Saturday’s official event.

As Bee performed onstage, journalists from CNN and The Washington Post and New York magazine sat at the candlelit tables, snacking, sipping, chatting during what would become the commercial breaks, and generally staging an effective dress rehearsal for what many of them would be doing at the actual Correspondents’ Dinner later that night. As in the official WHCD event, the moments when the stage went silent were briefly filled with the din of conversation and the clang of silverware on rented china. (Until, that is, the show’s producers filled the near-silence with music from Missy Elliott, Janet Jackson, and Fifth Harmony.) Imitation, Full Frontal’s non-event event insisted, with its typical sly grin, is the sincerest form of satire.

According to Washington lore, the Trump presidency began, as an idea, at the White House Correspondents’ dinner of 2011—when Barack Obama, engaging in the dinner’s traditional presidential comedy routine, made fun of the man who was then a reality star and the voice of the birther movement. The event’s roving cameras zoomed in on Trump’s face, reddening, not laughing, as Obama mocked him. “I think that is the night he resolves to run for president,” Roger Stone told PBS’s Frontline, of the events of that evening. “I think that he is kind of motivated by it: ‘Maybe I’ll just run. Maybe I’ll show them all.’”

President Trump, having shown them all, might have skipped this year’s dinner for any number of reasons: true resentment of the American press corps; a concern that his comedy routine, as in the past, would not go over well; spite; a desire to thoroughly undo the norms that have made Washington, for better or for worse, what it is today. But Bee’s version of the dinner suggested, in its way, how hard it is to undo traditions—in Washington, as in any other place. And her show reveled in the idea that the people the president dismisses as “fake news” might find ways to carry on, whether or not the president chooses to help them in the endeavor. The un-dinner, Bee announced at its closing, had ended up raising more than $200,000 for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Play us out!” Bee told the band, after the for-TV portion of her show had concluded and she was thanking her in-person audience. She paused. “‘Play us out’? What does that mean?” She paused again, seeming to be truly pondering the question. And then, with a wry smile, Bee ended her foray into alternative facts with a tribute to the man who had helped introduce them to American political life. “Fuck it,” she said, “we’ll do it live!”