White House Correspondents Dinners through the years: the funniest, most controversial jokes

Barack Obama with Keegan-Michael Key as his 'anger translator' at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner
Barack Obama with Keegan-Michael Key as his 'anger translator' at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner Credit: Rex

The White House Correspondents' Dinner takes place this Saturday (April 29), but the expected guest of honour – two-time Emmy nominee, former steak salesman and current United States President Donald Trump – will not be present.

The last fifteen presidents all attended one of the annual dinners, which have been held by the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) since 1921. The glitzy black-tie event has been attacked in previous years for symbolising an unduly cosy relationship between the government and the press.

But under the Trump administration, that relationship has become less cosy.  Just days before announcing he would skip the dinner, Trump wrote that respected US outlets including CNN, The New York Times and his former employer NBC – all of which will have journalists at the dinner– were "the enemy of the American people!"

Trump's difficult history with the event dates back to 2011, when Barack Obama used his dinner speech to poke fun at Trump's NBC show The Celebrity Apprentice. It has been widely suggested that his humiliation that night was a turning point in Trump's decision to run for the presidency.

If so, it wouldn't be the first time that a few pointed jokes at the dinner have caused major ripples. Although the event was once more notable for their musical guests (early dinners featured Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand), in the 21st century it's the comedy that has dominated the headlines.  Here are five of the most memorable – and controversial – comic skits from recent years.

2000: Bill Clinton discovers the internet

President Clinton also had a thorny time with the press, but – even after the 1998 Monica Lewinski sex scandal – he never missed a WHCA dinner. "In good days and bad, in times of great confidence and great controversy, I have actually shown up here for eight straight years," he boasted in 2000. "Looking back, that was probably a mistake." 

It was only in his final dinner that Clinton had the chance to show off his acting chops. The president screened a bleakly comic short film called The Final Days, starring in this workplace mockumentary a whole year The Office supposedly kickstarted the genre. In a Gervais-ian touch, there's even an awkward celebrity cameo – Kevin Spacey, snatching his Oscar back from would-be actor Clinton

In the film, the outgoing president wanders sad and alone through an abandoned White House. He spends his time gardening, watching cartoons and folding origami swans (or, if you prefer, lame ducks).

Things only look up for Bill when a White House staffer teaches him how to use the internet ("You're riding the wave of the future, my man!"), inspiring an Ebay shopping-spree.

2006: Stephen Colbert skewers Bush

The boldest comic skit in recent years came from Stephen Colbert, appearing in character as his hotheaded right-wing media pundit. By WHCA dinner standards, his 20-minute routine was a surprisingly savage attack. Defending the ailing administration, he quipped: "It's like the movie Rocky. The president is Rocky Balboa, and Apollo Creed is... everything else in the world."

We may think of "fake news" as a recent phenomenon, but Colbert's fact-hating alter ego was attacking knowledge a decade ago – and claimed Bush as his spiritual kin. "People out there are saying that this man has a 32% approval rating! But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls." After all, Colbert continued, polls reflect reality. "And reality has a well-known liberal bias!"

2011: The shaming of Donald Trump

Walking on accompanied by Rick Derringer's song Real American, Obama projected an enormous image of his birth certificate across the room, before mocking Donald Trump's role in promoting the "birther" conspiracy (the false claim that Obama was not born in America).

“I know that he’s taken some flack lately, but no one is prouder to put this birth-certificate matter to rest than the Donald," the president joked. "And that’s because he can finally get back to the issues that matter, like did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?"

As he spoke, the camera cut to Donald Trump, who remained stony-faced. 

But the real grilling came later, when Saturday Night Live comedian Seth Meyers took the stage, and launched a lengthy diatribe against the businessman, then rumoured to be planning an election bid. “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican – which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.” 

New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik, who attended the dinner, recalled the reality TV star's reaction: "Trump’s humiliation was as absolute, and as visible, as any I have ever seen... he sat perfectly still, chin tight, in locked, unmovable rage. If he had not just embarked on so ugly an exercise in pure racism, one might almost have felt sorry for him."

2015: Obama unveils his 'anger translator'

"I'm a mellow sort of guy," the president shrugged, before introducing a new employee: wild-eyed "anger translator" Luther (comedian Keegan-Michael Key). While Obama deadpanned his way through a typically understated speech, Key waved, stamped and howled out the hidden subtext. 

"Despite our differences, we count on the press to shed light on the most important issues of the day," Obama began, before Key added: "...And we can count on Fox News to terrify old white people with nonsense!"

With Key's usual comedy partner Jordan Peele busy directing films, and Obama currently out of work, can cross our fingers and hope for a reunion of this unlikely double-act.

2016: Larry Wilmore drops the N-word

The Nightly Show's host Larry Wilmore delivered a polished, entertaining stand-up set at the 2016 dinner. But it was a single word at the very end of his speech that caused a whirlwind of controversy: "To live in your time, Mr President, when a black man can lead the entire free world... Words alone do me no justice.... Yo, Barry – you did it, my n---a." Obama laughed, shook his hand, and embraced him.

But it was seen by many as an inappropriate way to address the president. Countless articles were published analysing the moment, and singer John Legend tweeted: "Piers Morgan's next troll piece just wrote itself."

Sure enough, the pundit rose to the bait, quoting Legend's tweet in his Daily Mail column before condemning Wilmore over his use of the word: "Why try to ‘own’ a word so destructive, so vile?"

Wilmore responded to Morgan on the next episode of The Nightly Show. He said he would never use the racist slur ending in "er", calling it a word "white people use to denigrate, demean, and dehumanise black people," but defended "n---a" as "a term of endearment some black people use between each other to take back that power".

 

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