WASHINGTON ― After serving as an effective substitute in 2017 for the annual Washington tradition, Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” returned with a straightforward mission.
“I really believe that once a year the current president should face someone who calls them out on their shit,” Bee said at the revival of her “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” taped Friday night and airing as a one-hour special Saturday on TBS, concurrent to the actual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
The comedian and host of TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” led the first iteration in 2017 as a response to a dinner that had been downsized after President Donald Trump declined to attend. Billed as a way to honor journalists and counter Trump’s antagonism toward the media, Bee’s counter-event effectively mirrored the dinner itself: a confluence of the political, entertainment and journalism worlds, and a mix of the serious and the satirical.
In interviews this week, Bee explained that, after not repeating the “dinner” last year, she hadn’t expected to bring back the special. But she changed her mind after the White House Correspondents’ Association decided to end its tradition of featuring a comedian skewering the president and the White House in response to an uproar over comedian Michelle Wolf’s criticism of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at last year’s dinner.
Trump seized on the incident, tweeting that the organization should “Put Dinner to rest, or start over!”
Critics of the WHCA’s decision, including Bee, saw it as acquiescing to the president.
“No one should ever do what the president tweets at them!” Bee joked at the start of Saturday’s special.
Compared to 2017′s event, the revival at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington felt less like a boisterous gala and more like a pep talk for journalists, and it lacked an overarching theme.
Despite the evening’s celebration of journalism’s role in keeping Trump accountable, sharing some similarities to Bee’s mission to roast Trump, the dual goals felt disjointed, making the show a hodgepodge rather than a cohesive whole.
After an announcer warmed up the live audience, which included many journalists, by thanking them “for taking time from your leaking and ‘deep-throating’ to be here tonight,” Bee performed a satirical R&B ballad for journalists, with lyrics like “inverted pyramid is my favorite position.”
Blooper reels of news anchors kept the audience entertained between segments, and an award show parody honored recipients like “the loneliest boy at Fox News”: anchor Shepard Smith, who, unlike the network’s morning and prime-time anchors, makes a point of reporting facts rather than essentially serving as a mouthpiece for Trump.
Continuing the award show theme, Bee introduced an “in memoriam” segment for White House press briefings, which have all but disappeared under Sanders.
“What the fuck does Sarah Huckabee Sanders do all day?!” Bee exclaimed before rolling out a “Sarah Hucka-bot Sanders,” a recurring character throughout the evening that initially drew lots of laughs but became, one might say, robotic by the end.
Sandwiched between the pep talk and the Trump roast were educational segments to promote media literacy, like journalists who create false balance ― with a cameo from “Jersey Shore” star Snooki as an example of someone not to include in a cable news panel about, say, climate change.
Bee, with an assist from “Hamilton” actor Brandon Victor Dixon, staged a parody of the musical “My Fair Lady” to implore journalists to directly call out racism rather than resort to euphemisms like “racially tinged” and “racially charged.”
“The racist did racism, which was racist,” they sang.
Other parts didn’t seem to have any sort of rhyme or reason.
“Saturday Night Live” alum Taran Killam performed a mock stand-up comedy set as “Xan Larson,” a “conservative comedian.” His jokes largely fell flat, an attempt at skewering the ways in which comedians with right-wing views have never really found success.
Even the night’s biggest celebrity cameo, Robert DeNiro, lacked the energy of the show’s earlier segments. Introduced by Bee as “someone who has at least played a crooked casino boss,” the actor and fierce Trump critic mostly steered clear of his signature screeds against the president and stuck to the script by paying tribute to the night’s mission of honoring journalists.
During her segment designed as a full-on Trump roast, Bee addressed Trump directly “on the off-chance he’s watching our show tonight in case Tucker Carlson ran out of racism.”
“You’re the most powerful man in the world, and you can’t listen to someone razz you for 5 minutes?” she said, before pointing out that “even fucking Justin Bieber” was subjected to a roast.
In a surprise to no one, instead of getting roasted, Trump’s Saturday night plans involving holding a rally and surrounding himself with his supporters.
Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” airs Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on TBS.