When Samantha Bee announced in January that her weekly late night show Full Frontal would put on its own version of the White House correspondents’ dinner (WHCD), it seemed, if briefly, that the actual event might not happen. In the event, the WHCD survived, President Trump said he would not attend, and Bee’s former Daily Show colleague Hasan Minhaj was named to act as host.
On Saturday, it remained to be seen what Bee’s party would be all about if it wasn’t a substitute event.
Taped in the afternoon for air on TBS and Twitter in the evening, Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner bore visual hallmarks of the actual event: famous faces from media and entertainment dolled up in dresses and tuxes to socialize and swill champagne. (Among them Padma Lakshmi, Jake Tapper and Melissa Harris-Perry.) But the event itself was less like the dinner than a one-hour version of Full Frontal: a crowd-pleaser for Bee’s fans, with a sprinkle of spectacle.
Bee, in a white suit, center stage, presented a series of segments related to the night’s theme of the media and the free press and was joined briefly by her on-air correspondents. Even when she went after the media – CNN took a particular beating – there were no cutaways to the audience, so we’ll never know if anyone reacted as poorly to her jabs as Trump did to Seth Meyers’ jokes back in 2011.
All the proceeds from the event went to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and crew members at the event wore “Free Press” T-shirts.
Like Full Frontal, the show folded heartfelt moments into a tightly-written package. A running gag of pre-tapes saw Bee hosting WHCDs back to the Hoover administration, stuffed with history nerd references and plenty of dick jokes and bookended with a horrifying vision of “Mrs Jason Jones” hosting 2018’s dinner for President Pence.
A presidential-esque podium was set up in one corner in preparation for a special guest, and to promise CNN producers they could simply show a shot of the empty podium instead of the rest of the show.
The special guest lived up to the title: Will Ferrell, in character as George W Bush, boasted about his now-elevated status among modern presidents: “I am the Martin Van Buren of the 21st century, so yeah, I’m doing just fine.”
The pre-tapes were also jammed with cameos, including Allison Janney as The West Wing’s CJ Cregg, Steve Buscemi, Patton Oswalt, Billy Eichner, Carl Reiner, Retta, and Kumail Nanjiani.
A few of the best lines of the night:
- Bee toasts the press: “You continue to fact-check the president as if he might someday get embarrassed.”
- Bee on Trump not attending the WHCD: “It just goes to show you a giant pussy can get elected president as long as he doesn’t have one.”
- Bee on Fox News not thinking racism is a problem: “I don’t think there was a virgin birth, but if I don’t say Merry Christmas your network will declare a fatwa on me.”
- Ferrell/Bush on the White House press corps: “Helen Thomas asked tougher questions as a dead woman than any man at Fox News can ask today.”
- Ferrell/Bush on Trump’s suits: “Here’s a fashion update for you, Mr Trump: the tie stops at the belt. A big long tie that goes to your mid-thigh does not mean what you think it means.”
- Bee on an alternate world in which Hillary Clinton is president: “Hillary is under so many investigations, I’m starting to think FBI really does stand for ‘Female Body Investigator’.”