On Saturday night, Conan O'Brien took on hosting duties for the second time since 1995 at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, and apparently his years on network television have not affected his ability to skewer politicians and pundits with some unrelenting jabs at the most sensitive news of the day. Taking on guns and gays, Mitt and Maddow, Biden and Boehner, this jolly ginger slaughtered every recognizable name and issue in politics today with his spot-on ribbing.
Unlike the trite and predictable Comedy Central roasts, the Correspondents' Dinner continues to offer relevant, bare-knuckle comedy. Those who've made it in Washington usually live in a showbiz shell of pandering and neutrality; unlikely the raunchy celebrities toasted by CC roasts, these guys have something to lose when faced with dark and hilarious truths -- which makes for an electric tension during the Correspondents' Dinner that is unmatched anywhere in live comedy.
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Bill Maher has always accused Obama of being on Xanax on account of the president's being so cool under fire -- and if that were true, then Obama must have upped his dose for this event. Belly-laughing like a randy Dean Martin on the Tonight Show, Obama seemed to be having the time of his life (or at least his presidency), even when the jokes were at his expense. "Mr. President, you're going to leave the office as a very young man, and yet the presidency has taken its toll," said O'Brien, clearly reveling in winding up the audience. "Seriously, your hair is so white, it could be a member of your cabinet."
And aside from a useless and backward joke about legalization supporters during his Online Town Hall conference in 2009, Obama made what was his first -- to my knowledge -- casual reference to his own cannabis use in younger years that came without some Nancy Reagan-style message for the kids. "The problem is that the media landscape is changing so rapidly," the president said. "I mean, I remember when Buzzfeed was just something I did in college around 2 a.m. [Big laugh.] ... It's true."
Earlier, after his entrance to the rap song "All I Do Is Win," by DJ Khaled, Obama had started strong with "Rush Limbaugh warned you about this -- second term, baby." The historical significance of a U.S. president yukking it up about smoking weed after hitting the stage to the lyrics "Don't make me pull that .44/ Ask you what you laughing at/ represent that mud life/ Dirty money, bitch" is not about a heralded figure disgracing the office of presidency. It's one of those rare moments where a generation gap of caucasian geriatrics and twitterfied urbanists battle over the rights to future social mores.
The White House Correspondents' Dinners are usually relaxed and jovial, with good-natured ribbing between frenemies. But with each passing year, they've been invaded by a new level of sarcasm and knife-twisting from caustic political comedians. When Stephen Colbert hosted in 2006, his vicious parody of President Bush was viewed as an ambush, with many thinking he went too far in (basically) calling the president a retarded monkey with war in his eyes. But so much has changed since then, I don't think you could call foul on the offensive host without being viewed as an out-of-touch grandpa with a stick up your ass.
In an age of mass shootings and second-amendment radicals, Conan O'Brien has received surprisingly little flak for going after the biggest name in gun rights. "Here's a fun fact about tonight's food: Everything you ate this evening was personally shot by Wayne LaPierre. Don't worry, it was during a home invasion.... You may not know this, but Wayne LaPierre is merely the executive vice president of the NRA. Which begs the question: HOW FREAKIN' CRAZY DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO BE THE ACTUAL PRESIDENT OF THE NRA?!"
And you couldn't ask for a better illustration of how politics has changed than the cold open, a House of Cards parody film that featured key players in Washington. There was some beyond-playful irreverence to be found there, but the mere application of the Netflix drama to the real-life world of our nation's capital was an outrageous moment. The show is about self-serving politicians who would step on the necks of their grandchildren in order to advance their careers. And through biting satire and unrestrained insult comedy, it seems that our nation's leaders are finally willing to admit to the truth in that. And laugh at it.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.