If Hillary Clinton had been elected president, Samantha Bee would have been the hands-down frontrunner to host the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Instead, President Donald Trump decided to skip this year’s main event and Bee’s former Daily Show colleague Hasan Minhaj will be roasting the president in absentia Saturday night. As The President Show’s Anthony Atamanuik told me in a recent interview, “It would diminish the impact to do it and he’s not there.”
So with all of that in mind, Bee hosted her very own Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington on Saturday in front of a raucous crowd that included loyal fans of her TBS show Full Frontal, along with D.C. luminaries like Valerie Jarrett and a table full of CNN all-stars that included Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, Jim Acosta and Brianna Keilar. No members of the Trump administration or Fox News pundits were spotted by this reporter.
100 days into Trump’s presidency, the mood in the building was something like ironic fatalism mixed with fierce resistance. The show opened with a taped piece in which Allison Janney reprised her role as The West Wing’s White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, forced to confront the increasingly alt-right White House press corps. Instead of talking about vaginas for half an hour, as one member of the pool suggested she does on a regular basis, Janney confirmed that she would be talking about them for a full hour this time.
When Bee finally took the stage to a standing ovation wearing her Hillary-esque white suit, she welcomed her fans and viewers, but especially those in attendance from the “failing New York Times,” the “failing pile of garbage BuzzFeed” and ProPublica, which she said “sounds Mexican.” The night was ostensibly a celebration of the free press, with proceeds going to the Committee to Protect Journalists, but it contained just as much media criticism as past White House Correspondents’ Dinner speeches by comedians like last year’s host Larry Wilmore.
It started with her tease for a special guest coming later in the show — Could it be her former boss Jon Stewart? Or perhaps Elizabeth Warren? — instructing cable news to focus their attention on the empty podium on the side of the stage, “no matter what a woman might be doing over here.” She also questioned why the media continues to fact-check President Trump, “as if he might someday get embarrassed.”
Bee’s first big media target was CNN, which happens to share a parent company with TBS. But that did not mean the host was about to hold back on one of political comedy’s favorite targets. “Cable news has developed a critical pundit infestation, and no one’s house needs tenting worse than our friends at CNN,” Bee said.
In a recent interview, CNN head Jeff Zucker said, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.” Bee said it was certainly “undeniable” that CNN treats politics like sports, “right down to sending players on the field despite their evident brain damage.” Cut to a particularly damning clip of Kayleigh McEnany.
Bee implored Zucker to put “smart reporters” like Anderson Cooper back to doing real work instead of serving as a referee for “loyal partisan hacks” like McEnany and Jeffrey Lord. “CNN employs some of the most talented journalists out there,” she said, begging Zucker to use them for good instead of evil.
The night’s “In Memoriam” segment was dedicated to two Fox News heavyweights, so to speak: Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. “What a triumph for women that career sexual predators are finally getting what they deserve,” Bee said. “$65 million and age-appropriate retirement. Oh, justice.”
But Bee was even harsher on the man who is still apparently running Fox’s parent company 21st Century Fox, “Australian media mogul and sentient liver spot” Rupert Murdoch. “His network spent 20 years setting the table for Trump, and now he has what he always wanted: a BFF-slash-program director in the White House, gumming his soggy cornflakes while enjoying a long-distance circle jerk.” As Bee cleverly pointed out, Trump has tweeted more about Fox & Friends this year than he ever has about his daughter Tiffany.
Towards the end of the show, Bee paid off her “special guest” tease in the form of Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush. “How do like me now?” he asked the crowd to knowing applause.
But the most brutal hilarious moment of the afternoon “dinner” came at the end of the show when Bee delivered a version of the speech she would have given at Clinton’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She set it up with a Man in the High Castle parody in which George Takei handed her a very special film reel that revealed the alternate reality where America elected its first female president.
Looking back on this bizarro 2017 so far, Bee said Hillary Clinton was sworn in as president, the Patriots lost the Super Bowl and Beyoncé won all of the Grammys. “A week after President Clinton won, we all heard a loud buzzing noise,” she said. “Either that was the sound of the whizzing bullet we just dodged or it was Bill O’Reilly’s vibrator.”
Bee then lamented how “boring and dull” Clinton’s first 100 days had been, noting, “I almost feel like I’d rather have an idiot like Trump in charge, just for the excitement.” Speaking directly to the first female president, she said, “You may have your faults, but because of you, I can tell my daughters they can do anything and that sexism won’t hold them back. The world will not magnify their faults and ignore their virtues because of their gender. That time has truly passed. No hard feelings, men.”
It was almost too depressing to be funny. Almost.
“I don't think I've ever had more fun as a performer than I did tonight,” Bee told the audience after the taping had ended. She may have had more fun roasting Hillary Clinton at the real White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but our current alternate reality will have to do.