White House correspondents' dinner: Conan O'Brien too safe for 'nerd prom'? (+video)(Read article summary)
The White House correspondents' dinner is about the hippest thing going, by D.C. standards. The host is always a big deal. So what does Conan O'Brien bring to the table?
Orange-haired late-night funnyman Conan OâBrian will perform at this yearâs White House Correspondentsâ Association dinner. Politico reported the news this morning and WHCA officials confirmed it later in the day. It will be the second appearance for Conan at the famous-for-Washington âNerd Prom,â the capitalâs annual gathering of celebrities, politicians, lobbyists, corporate executives, and a few working reporters.
Conan has done this once before, in 1995. Back then he made fun of Bill Clintonâs failed health-care reform effort, Judge Ito (remember the O.J. trial?), and Nick Nolteâs portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in a movie about same. But it was all fairly tame, despite Mr. OâBrienâs mid-'90s rep as the cutting-edge guy of late night.
Thatâs perhaps why heâs doing a return gig: The WHCA is all about safe at its dinner these days. It doesnât want a rerun of the 2006 Stephen Colbert debacle. Mr. Colbert skewered President George W. Bush without mercy, and then moved on to savage the press and Washington in general. The C-SPAN audience might have loved it, but it didnât play well in the room.
OâBrien is already making the sort of policy-based jokes Washingtonians like. On his Twitter feed Wednesday he said, âIâm honored to host the WH Correspondents dinner. Get ready for 2minutes of jokes, then 40 minutes on public employee pension reform.â
(Hereâs what Washington is like: There will be people in the audience who will be disappointed when the pension-reform discussion doesnât show up.)
Then there was his tweet from Feb. 18, in which he said that âin honor of Presidentsâ Day, I wonât be getting along with Congress.â
See, thatâs funny because in general the executive and legislative branches clash due to different prerogatives and priorities and ... oh, sorry, this isnât Brookings?
Anyway, there are some people who think Conan is too safe. Right now, the WHCA is involved in a spat with the White House over not getting access to President Obamaâs golf game with Tiger Woods last weekend and limited access in general. By going with a safe choice of entertainment, the group seems, well, toothless. Or at least overly fond of the status quo, according to Alyssa Rosenberg of the liberal ThinkProgress website.
âIâm not saying thinking more creatively and independently about who is going to host the Associationâs dinner will come close to fixing all the problems of the White House press corps. But it might help the Association consider who it wants to represent the organization on that dais, what role it thinks itâs members have, and its own capacity to take a joke â and criticism,â Rosenberg writes.
As for us, weâre wondering what Conan is going to get paid. Ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now reportedly asking upwards of $200,000 per speech. Do comedians make that kind of money?
Not according to the Form 990s that the WHCA must file with the IRS. According to its paperwork for 2011, the latest available, that giant dinner grosses about $630,000. Of that, about $250,000 goes to charitable contributions for things such as journalism scholarships. In 2011, the room and food cost $382,000.
Entertainment? Their 2011 line item for that was a measly $10,000. Of course, the headliner that year was Seth Meyers, who is great on Saturday Night Live but not exactly making Jay Leno worry about his job.
Mr. Leno himself was the 2010 speaker. Entertainment that year cost $43,000, according to IRS records. Maybe OâBrien will get that. Or maybe all of the comedians should ring up Mrs. Clinton and ask for the name of her agent.