Washington’s once-glitzy “nerd prom” was briefly upstaged Saturday as comedians and Hollywood stars gathered for jokes and jests about President Donald Trump for a tongue-in-cheek event to counter the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Late-night TV star Samantha Bee pulled in celebrities for the first “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner'”: Alysia Reiner of “Orange Is the New Black,” Retta of “Parks and Recreation” and Matt Walsh of “Veep.” Bee’s show, a comedic tribute to American news organizations, featured actor Will Ferrell and other guests roasting Trump and his allies.
The star power of the real correspondents’ dinner took a hit this year when Trump declined to attend, the first president since Ronald Reagan in 1981 to skip it. In Reagan’s case, he was recovering from an assassination attempt. Trump did his own counter-programming, scheduling a rally Saturday night in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to mark his 100th day in office.
The absence of the president himself at the WHCA dinner or even officials from the administration seemed to diminish attendance by big names in film, television and sports.
Barack Obama’s humorous remarks had become a highlight at the dinner. Last year, for Obama’s final appearance, the crowd included Will Smith, Emma Watson, Kerry Washington, Helen Mirren and model Kendall Jenner.
For years, the event offered Washington’s press corps an opportunity to wear black tie and stunning gowns while mixing with celebrities. With Trump out, organizers put the focus on the First Amendment and the role of the press in democracy.
The scheduled headliners were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, set to present journalism awards. Woodward told The Washington Post the two planned to speak about “the First Amendment and the importance of aggressive but fair reporting.”
The dinner still booked a master of ceremonies: Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show. Broadcast coverage was to begin at 9:30 p.m. on C-SPAN, followed by Bee’s event airing on TBS at 10 p.m.
Jeff Mason, the WHCA president, said this year would have been different even if Trump had attended, “based on the tension that has existed in the relationship and some of the things he has said about the press. We were preparing for a different dinner either way.”
Trump has called the media “fake” and “dishonest” and even “the enemy of the people.” In an emailed fundraising appeal before leaving for Pennsylvania, Trump cited among the accomplishments over his first 100 days, “We fought back against the media’s lies.”
Mason promised that Minhaj would use his comedy chops, without “roasting the president in absentia.”
“People don’t want to come to a dinner and feel bored or preached at. Hopefully neither of those things will happen,” Mason said.
Bee, who hosts TBS’ weekly show Full Frontal, said she cared deeply about the press.
“For God’s sake, we could not do our show if things were more restricted. So, boy, nobody needs press freedom more than we do,” she told The Associated Press in an interview.
Bee’s taped show singled out the Committee to Protect Journalists, the nonprofit group that will receive proceeds from the show. The show humorously assailed topics like “alternative facts,” a remark once made by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway that drew heavy criticism.
The official WHCA dinner began in 1921. Most people trace the development of the celebrity guests to 1987, when Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Kelly brought Fawn Hall, the secretary at the center of the Iran-Contra affair.