After reading all the mixed coverage of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner I thought I would use my experience as Roastmaster General of the United States to brief future attendees.
Here are a few guidelines:
- Dress up. There’s always a chance someone may make fun of your appearance so you’ll want to look your best. Maybe lay off the heavy eye makeup. I’m talking to you Jake Tapper.
- Try to sit next to a fat guy. No recent roast moment was more entertaining than this week when Michelle Wolf made a joke about former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie being shaped like a barrel—and then the cameras cut to him eating his dessert. He seemed to be enjoying the joke and the panna cotta equally. Kudos to him.
- Lighten up! Why would anyone go to a roast and then complain that it’s offensive? That’s like riding a rollercoaster and then complaining that it’s too exhilarating. If someone makes a joke about you… laugh. Even if you don’t think it’s funny, at least act like a good sport. Don’t sit there looking oddly serious while you’re being teased. If you’re not there to have fun, then why are you there? Ms. Sanders, Ms. Conway, next time try soaking up the attention because it’s better than the alternative: not getting mentioned at all. You’re powerful. You’re successful. You're confident. Just take the damn joke. Don’t just sit there pretending to be appalled as if you never imagined in a million years you’d be zinged by a Type-A comic in front of B-celebrities on C-SPAN.
- Always show up in person—don’t just send your squad. It’s sad that the President of the United States hasn’t attended the last two WHCDs. This genuinely worries me. This yearly tradition is still the nation’s only chance to witness a comedian point out the president’s foibles to the president’s face in front of the national press—which I believe is America’s ultimate expression of free speech. As a longtime fan of these dinners, I sincerely believe that Mr. Trump skipping the roast is detrimental to our democracy—and pushes the president and the free press even further apart. So Mr. President, please come back to roast world. Have you lost your sense of humor? I doubt it. I’ve roasted you twice for charity and you’ve always been a good sport and even called me afterwards to tell me how much fun you had. Plus you’re also a very strong comedic performer yourself. You closed your own 2011 Comedy Central Roast with one of the best jokes of the night. After enduring 90 minutes of insults about your finances, family and hair you finally stepped up to the podium and pondered in trademark third-person schtick, “What’s the difference between a wet raccoon and Donald J. Trump’s hair? A wet raccoon doesn’t have 7 billion fuckin’ dollars in the bank.” Boom. The Donald had the last laugh. So why not come back, Mr. President? Bush and Obama always scored bigly at these events. You should have a chance to take your swings too. After all, you roast-battled your way into the oval office, so why stop now?
- Lower your expectations. This isn’t Broadway. This isn’t opera. When a comic performs at a roast they are essentially trying out new material written just for that night. Not every joke works. And when the room is filled with powerful people, like at the WHCD, the tension is raised and the humor hits more intensely. That’s why I enjoy watching this event year after year—especially when the comics take big swings the way Michelle did. When a comic finally gets to the podium, they are giving a final performance of a work in progress. Some lines work and some don’t. Some are meant for “the room” and some are meant for those watching at home. For the performer, this isn’t just a high-profile gig—it’s an act of patriotism. It’s a rare and precious opportunity to get adversaries in the same room laughing at the same things, which can only help to humanize both sides.
- Stand your ground. It’s sad that the White House Correspondents’ Association felt it had to apologize to its members for “the entertainer,” claiming her performance “wasn’t in the spirit of the night.” It was a roast! They HIRED her to do a roast! Apparently these top-notch investigative journalists didn’t bother to research Michelle’s style. They don’t have to invite Michelle back, but why admonish her for doing the job you asked her to do? Furthermore, by reprimanding Michelle the WHCA acted against its own interests and gave President Trump a big win. He didn’t even show up at the event, yet he still owns the night because they caved on their own mission to protect Michelle’s First Amendment rights. Being a journalist is a brave profession, but this was a cowardly move. Today two journalists were killed while working in Kabul. I wish the WHCA was telling the world that instead of apologizing for a comic doing comedy at a comedy event.
- Maybe President Trump is right. Maybe they should get rid of this dinner. If the people running it can’t back up the performers, then this event is no longer a safe haven for free speech. For decades the WHCD was a great American tradition of comics roasting truth to power. Now I’m not sure what it is. Oh, and Flint still doesn’t have clean water.
Jeff Ross is host of the podcast Thick Skin With Jeff Ross on iTunes. He also stars on Roast Battle, returning to Comedy Central this summer.