We can’t decide if it’s a good thing when our president’s comedic delivery is more laugh-out-loud funny than one of the country’s most beloved comedians.
That was the case at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner held at the Washington Hilton on Saturday. TBS late night host Conan O’Brien had the unfortunate job of following Barack Obama, who not only served up some hilarious barbs at the media guests present but also at himself.
He had one main advantage over O’Brien. Obama knows he has run his last campaign and there was a relaxed feel to his delivery that came with knowing he really didn't need this group’s approval.
In contrast, O’Brien’s delivery felt rushed, overly reliant on his notes and the order of his jokes and, he spoke very, very loudly. It was as if he had something to prove to these folks after his last stint at the “nerd prom” 18 years ago and going forward in the late night enterprise.
The comic began by making fun of the event’s lowbrow elements – the Hilton and the invitation of stars from A&E reality series, “Duck Dynasty.” “The guys from ‘Duck Dynasty’ are here, which can only mean one thing: The guys from ‘Storage Wars’ said no,” he said. It seemed an odd starting point with all the material sitting in the room.
Like Obama, O’Brien had something to say about the vast changes in media. These actually became high points for the speech. “Today, you can get real time information from something small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Back in '95, we called that George Stephanopoulos,” he said.
While he took several jabs at the endangered print media (“Some people say print media is dying, but I don't believe it and neither does my blacksmith”), the host definitely had something to say about internet media as well.
One target in particular was dinner guest Arianna Huffington‘s media company. After pointing out Huffington Post’s pithy and numerous “listings” posts, he said that he tried to say hello to her before the event but she made him watch a 30-second video first.
O’Brien was particularly hard on CNN in the wake of its recent mistakes in covering the Boston attack, pointing out that MSNBC actually stopped a pundit from speaking about unverified reports. “You can do that,” he said to the news channel.
Another high point in the delivery were ones that pointed out the Republicans’ recent election losses. “Hard to hear that the Republicans didn't fare better with the support of Ted Nugent and Meatloaf. I guess they overestimated the number of voters who still drive carpeted vans,” he said.
And, then there’s this one: “If in 1995 you told me that in 2013 we'd have an African American president with a middle name Hussein who was just elected to a second term in a sluggish economy, I would have said, ‘Oh, he must have run against Mitt Romney.'”
His jokes about Obama were some of the best in the act, such as: “Mister President, your hair is so white it could be a member of your cabinet.” At the same time, this is a chance to really roast the president and O’Brien didn’t take advantage of that.
He did win some points with the audience – namely event sponsors, the White House Correspondents Association. Political reporters, he noted, have criticized the president for being aloof and distant. O’Brien joked that he mentioned that to Obama, who replied, “Oh?” and walked away.
The comic ended with a nod to the attacks in Boston and a fairly flat joke-recasting of Joe Biden as Bob Barker, Paul Ryan as Mr. Bean, and John Kerry as an Easter Island statue – complete with side-by-side photos. Wah, wah.
Conan, we were looking for more bite.
Watch his speech below.