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Jeff Simon: Minhaj proves his chops at Correspondents Dinner

"Welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondent's Dinner," wisecracked Hasan Minhaj on Saturday night.

Hasan Who? Minhaj, or, if you want to know, the very reason I made it a point to watch.

While I would never waste a second praising the orgy of showbiz and political coziness that Washington's annual event devolved into, I've long been a dedicated watcher of it.

There are two reasons for that. 1) The comedian selected to do a routine for pols and journalists that night has long been, by conservative estimate, trying to get through the hardest gig in contemporary comedy. It was, no doubt, harder to get chuckles on the deck of the Titanic but, otherwise, those assembled for the correspondents blowout enjoy the jokes at their expense about as much as the current president did a few years ago when the last president had a rollicking good time at his expense (without, thereby, causing so much as a tiny crack of a smile from a stonefaced Donald Trump. Trump's immobility, while being pinioned, was matched this year by Wolf Blitzer when Minhaj's jokes suddenly got personal.)

Show me a satirist - a Stephen Colbert, say, at a White House Correspondent's dinner -- about to enter his profession's antechamber of hell and, so help me, I'll show you a small cadre of us devotees to the standup comedy arts who are there because somebody needs to bear witness. I'm there hoping I can laugh and admire what he or she does and spread the glad tidings about the subject later.

The scene at the 2017 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at Washington Hilton (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Colbert, still, has the dinner's prize for chutzpah above and beyond the call of duty for his performance there.

This year's designated spritzer, Minhaj, is one of the comics on the current lesser-known edition of "The Daily Show." He is, far and away, the least known comic ever tapped for the gig. Which, of course, made him, fresh and terrific right off the bad when he admitted "no one wanted to do this so of course it lands in the hands of an immigrant." Said Minhaj, Don Rickles died just so he wouldn't have to do it (thereby signalling to one and all that if anyone expected sensitivity, they were in the wrong place.)

Minhaj, a Muslim whose family is from India was, in a sense, doing out of the blue, an audition for the big time. I thought he passed with flying colors. He may have mad a moment or two of frenzied avidity but he slam-dunked the gig.

At times like that, it behooves sympathetic comedy partisans  to notice and say so.

The other reason I never missed the C-Span broadcast of the White House Correspondent's Dinner over the past eight years is that I always found it delightful that Obama knew what to do with all the jokes and funny lines that professional comedy writers wrote for him.

Host Samantha Bee onstage during Full Frontal With Samantha Bee's Not The White House Correspondents' Dinner. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for TBS)


The relationship between comedy writers and performers is often a fraught one, especially when the performers are amateurs. What, say, a president like George W. Bush can do with a line by a comedy pro isn't always as natural as it should be. Obama, on the other hand, kept on getting better every year. He obviously enjoyed doing the dinner because of all the new skills he was picking up. By the final one, he'd developed enviable comedy chops.

Our last president knew how to be funny. The current president preferred to be in Harrisburg, Pa. during the dinner complaining about the usual Hollywood infestation (that never, this year, showed up.)

Minhaj ended his trial by fire by saying "only in America can an Indian Muslim kid get on stage and make fun of the president." I was happy as can be to be there as his C-Span.

More elaborate, of course, was Samantha Bee's competing especial edition of "Full Frontal" on TBS which was jammed with show folks (Allison Janney to Will Ferrell) and a contingent of working journalists too (our former editor and current Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan was seen, identified by the chyron "radical factualist" which, later on Facebook, she understandably said she had liked.)

Minhaj couldn't begin to apply the blowtorch Bee could when she did a number on CNN's Jeff Zucker "filling the airtime between car crashes with a reality show loosely based on the news." Bee's job blasting Zucker to smithereens was that of a lifelong TV comedy pro taking on one of the most influential and controversial figures in all of television. It was a rare spectacle to watch.


On a weekend replete with wildly memorable TV all over the place, the Starz network began the newest premiere Sunday night hallucination not to be missed: the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's episodic novel "American Gods" which marks the return to TV of one of my all-time favorite TV series actors, Ian McShane, whose immortality assuredly came from portraying Al Swearingen on "Deadwood" but whose sinister smirk is now nicely lodged on the face of Gaiman's "Mr. Wednesday.

The showrunner of "American Gods"  is Bryan Fuller, whose bloodbath visuals for "Hannibal" turned it into something singular and hallucinatory.

So now, in Fuller's new vision "American Gods," my advice it to catch up to it soon and not miss it thereafter.


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