I bailed on Joel McHale. I’m sorry, but two-thirds of his stand-up gig at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner was all I could take on television Saturday night.
The star of NBC’s “Community” and E’s “Talk Soup” was perfectly OK, mind you. It’s just that his gig confirmed for me, yet again, that the gig is the worst in all of stand-up comedy and virtually impossible to sit through unless the comic is spectacular or you relish the sight of a stand-up trying to get laughs out of 2,600 people of whom at least half want him to bomb.
What the comedian is doing is symbolizing everything about show business (all of it subsumed under the generic term “Hollywood”) that at least half of the Washington pols in attendance loathe with every fiber of their being while ineptly pretending to be good sports.
And that is the opposite of the White House correspondents, whose younger members, no doubt, can’t wait for the one day a year when a certified, card-carrying comedian gets to lob grenades right at as many of Washington’s political and journalistic big shots as he (or she) can.
What the comedian is, essentially, is a hired verbal hit man imported from out of town to blast away at every pomposity inside the Beltway that can be readily seen from elsewhere.
McHale wasn’t bad. He had a few decent jokes – and with the writers of “Community” and the snarksters of E’s “Talk Soup” to call on for help, you would certainly think he would.
“It’s an honor,” he said, for instance, “to be here in Washington, D.C., the city that started the whole crack-smoking mayor craze.”
But it’s in the nature of his generation’s stand-up comedy to be fast and loose with language and subject matter in a way that is the opposite of what may be the squarest, nerdiest room full of people in North America, no matter how many Hollywoodians they pack into the joint to prove their hipness.
Unfortunately, hipness, as defined by a working TV comic on one hand and by a member of Congress or a serious journalist on the other, is completely contradictory. There is nothing more revealing than the sight of people protesting how vast is their collective sense of humor while, in fact, demonstrating its true sub-atomic size.
Any and all major infractions of subject and taste will register well over 5.5 on the room’s Richter scale. No matter who the comic is – even Jay Leno – he is likely to be way too hip for the room at some point.
McHale hit that point more than a few times as I watched:
“I can tell the Kardashians are Republicans because they’re always trying to screw black people.” There’s one that frosted the multitude.
Another was “I am a big fan of that lesbian on MSNBC, Chris Hayes” – a double-duty offender for anyone inclined to be political and/or sexually correct. The worst of it is that the comic, whoever it is, has to follow the president of the United States, whose writers and joke contributors have made sure that he’s taken the temperature of the room perfectly and never veers by as much as an inch from what the room considers the straight and narrow.
President Obama is very good at this game. He knows how to get a joke across and still remain presidential.
Republicans have been as critical of John Boehner as they have of him, he said, “which proves that orange really is the new black” (a joke on the complexion of the speaker of the House which is, as far as most of us can tell, not really found in nature or anywhere else).
To Fox News, the president said, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone. It will be harder to convince the American people that Hillary was born in Kenya.”
The latter, of course, is the perfect White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner joke – both self-deprecating and unerringly aimed at one of the more dimwitted of cable news hobbyhorses.
It’s the president’s room, when it comes time to yuk it up. The comic professional turns into the slick interloper. If he or she has any sand at all, he’ll see what he can get away with.
And when the groans and gasps come along, as they inevitably will, he’ll come as close to flop sweat as a comic can – and all the while doing it in front of the most influential audience he’ll ever have.
The old guys in comedy – Bob Hope and even Don Rickles – always knew exactly how far they could go with the powerful without drawing actual blood. They were always safe, however brutal in Rickles’ case.
The White House correspondents don’t necessarily want “safe” for their chosen comic. They want a comic picador whose jokes pierce the skin.
It’s even worse than hosting the Oscars. That gig – for someone as likable as Ellen DeGeneres – can be done unerringly. Even when she has a couple of brief seconds of breathtaking snark at the expense of, say, Liza Minnelli, the target of the joke is someone whose level of consciousness is notably different from most others in the room. And too, Minnelli was, not long after, involved in some obvious previous collusion with DeGeneres’ comedy. It may have sounded a bit strident but it was, I assure you, pure American show business of the sort Minnelli has known from inches away since infancy.
Seth MacFarlane and Chris Rock both bombed at the Oscars because they forgot the host has to work the room first, not treat the room as The Enemy whose heads have to be gone over to get to the TV audience at home.
The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner comic can’t do that. He’s been hired by the hipper contingent of Washington journalists, which means most of the pols and other journalists will be waiting for every eensy-weensy deviation from the straight and narrow of taste and deportment.
As I said, it has to be the worst gig in stand-up comedy.Survive it, though, and your stature instantly rises about two levels above where it was.
Joel McHale survived.
Which is more than I can say for me as I tried to watch him do it.
Correction: A previous version of this column indicated the stand-up gig lasted longer than it did.