Death be not proud -- especially when it is on stage in Washington in front of 3,000 reporters, government officials and B-list celebrities. Not since Jay Leno moved to prime time has there been a comic disaster to rival ... well ... Jay Leno's performance Saturday night at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Maybe Leno's problem was his position on the night's lineup as the closing act following Barack Obama, a president whose natural humor is not so much understated as dehydrated. Obama -- whose arsenal clearly includes witty writers as well as predator drones -- proved to be the master of the sly one-liner. The gags ranged from his crack about his poll numbers ("I happen to know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth") to his artful skewering of the Politico (a mock headline after V-J Day: "Japan Surrenders -- Where's the Bounce?").
Leno's humor was about as edgy as a Bob Hope USO routine. Typical was this (stop me if you've heard it before) bit about Obama: "He has had a share of stress. Tough economy, two wars, health care fight, Iran, North Korea, his mother-in-law moving in with him. I think that would break most men." Nothing like a good mother-in-law joke to feel so 21st century.
Like so much in politics, Leno's blandness was an over-reaction to what happened last year. The 2009 entertainer Wanda Sykes (who, unlike Leno, got real laughs) crossed every line
in creation by suggesting that "maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was just so strung out on Oxycontin he missed his flight."
Read the transcript of President Obama's remarks at the White House Correspondents Dinner
Far safer to allow Leno to recycle his John McCain has the "early-bird special" material and to update Henny Youngman-esque lawyer jokes. ("There's talk of a John Edwards sex tape. That's something no one's seen before: A trial lawyer screwing people.") The robotic quality of Leno's routine was underscored by his refusal to jettison stale jokes that had already been appropriated by Obama, such as the inevitable-for-Washington swipe at House Minority Leader John Boehner's all-season tan.
The deconstruction of a headliner's comic performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner easily degenerates into a discourse on the culture of Washington and the press pack. Stephen Colbert's memorable skewering of the press and George W. Bush at the 2006 dinner ("He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday") spawned a weeklong, furrow-browed flap over why the assembled reporters seemed so reluctant to laugh.
But there was probably no larger meaning to the Leno letdown Saturday night other than Washington is not his kind of town. (Speaking of my kind of town -- Leno does deserve credit for his best bit: "The president has the most diverse staff in history: They represent every ward in Chicago.")
Still, it is telling that Leno was also the headliner at the most famous White House Correspondent Dinner in recent history. That was the 1987 dinner -- in the midst of the Iran-contra scandal -- when the late Michael Kelly (then with the Baltimore Sun) escorted as his guest Fawn Hall, Oliver North's beautiful and loyal secretary. That red-carpet moment somehow spawned the celebrity-obsessed, the Oscars-for-the-C-Span-set extravaganza that is the modern correspondents dinner.
That night in 1987 Leno was diplomatic enough not to refer to the story of the moment: Ronald Reagan's difficulties with the arms-for-hostages scandal. Leno's time-tested ability to be famously inoffensive all but guarantees that he will headline a future correspondents dinner. It is already hard to contain the anticipation waiting for the next round of Leno's Washington mother-in-law jokes.