The annual White House Correspondents' Dinner is often referred to as "nerd prom." All those reporters, used to rocking whatever sensible clothes and haircuts let them get the job done with minimum fuss, all suddenly dressed up in formal attire. If the WHCD is nerd prom, I'm not sure what to call this, the brainchild of Full Frontal host Samantha Bee and her executive producer/showrunner, Jo Miller, but here we all are, standing in line in our requested "cocktail" attire, waiting to be checked in to the "Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner," a river of jewel-toned dresses shining in the unforgiving sun.
From where I stand, I can see the tented red-carpet area. Behind me, a woman dressed in a long evening dress is wearing diamonds, while in front of me, two attractive men are sporting tuxedoes. I'm glad I decided to buy a new outfit for this gig: I chose a 1950s-style swing dress with a petticoat underneath so full I resemble an upside-down margarita glass. As the sweat drips down my neck and begins to sting, I realize there must be nickel in the costume rhinestones around my neck, in my ears, and around my wrist. I'm breaking out in a rash. I'm going to need to ditch the jewelry as soon as possible.
But all around me, despite the fact that it's over 90 degrees and no one is going to be let in early, everyone is in a fantastic mood. Just a couple of blocks away, a large crowd has gathered for the march to defend the environment, so the city is full of protest signs that ask the president to consider the earth before he makes any more of his notoriously stupid decisions.
The president isn't in town. He should be at the official White House Correspondents' Dinner, an annual fund-raising gala at which the press roasts the president and – usually – the president demonstrates his sense of humor by mocking them back. But not this guy.
In January, even before Trump announced that he wasn't going to attend the official correspondents' dinner, Bee announced her counter-programming event, a chance to roast this thin-skinned president who cannot take a joke. And, because the past few years have been bad for journalists around the world in terms of being attacked, the proceeds of Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner will go to benefit the Committee to Protect Journalists. (At the end of the night, Bee announced that the dinner had raised $200,000 for the CPJ.)
The line moves, and, after passing through two different layers of security, I'm in. The rules for this event are a little different than one might expect. For one thing, I'm not allowed to take in a big bag with me, nor am I allowed to bring any kind of recording equipment. But I also cannot bring my iPad into the show to take notes; it's been determined that the lights from all the journalists' equipment will be too distracting. So, in a mad scramble on the morning of the event, I found a small bag with just enough room for a pad of paper and my favorite fountain pen, a back-up pen, and several ink cartridges.
- Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda
As soon as I'm through security, I'm met by a uniformed server who offers me a glass of champagne and an hors d'oeuvre. I get out of the sun and walk into the air-conditioned foyer, where most everyone has retreated. Soon, I'm spotting lots of well-known liberal writers and humorists. Lizz Winstead. Van Jones. Jonathan Capehart. But it's when Ashley Nicole Black, one of Sam Bee's correspondents, walks within a foot of me that I take notice. I give her a big smile, and before I can stop myself, I do the bowing motion made famous by Garth and Wayne in Wayne's World: "I'm not worthy!" She looks embarrassed. I tell myself to snap out of it. I've earned my right to be here, although like a lot of women I know, I still struggle with feeling like a fraud.
My invitation to cover this event came because I've just completed a big profile of Sam Bee and Jo Miller for the June print issue of Marie Claire. I had also interviewed Bee in January 2016 for The Guardian, before Full Frontal debuted, before anyone knew how strong a chord the show would strike with the American public. Since its debut, Full Frontal's ratings have gone up 175 percent, and ratings since the election have risen more sharply than Bee's male cohorts at their various late-night gigs.
An usher wearing a black T-shirt that says FREE PRESS shows me to my seat. Up on the empty stage, stage right, there are eight Ionian columns with music equipment in front of them, and on stage left, a podium with the presidential seal, in front of a dozen U.S. flags and another group of columns.
The show begins with a video and the crowd bursts into wild applause as they recognize Allison Janney back in her role as The West Wing White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg. Cregg is dealing with the collection of media that have been given credentials by the Trump White House, and the jokes are coming so fast that I have a momentary sense of panic as I realize that there is no way in hell I'm going to be able to write them down in real time. Cregg looks into the crowd of "reporters" waiting to ask her a question and chooses a young man who appears to be a teenager: "You're 18 and wearing your father's suit. You're obviously from Breitbart."
"Doesn't having a female host for this event demonstrate a clear anti-white male bias?" the kid asks.
Cregg responds: "Absolutely not. Sam Bee doesn't have anything against white guys. She just can't tell you apart and thinks you all know one another."
(I get the context of the joke, which is Trump's thinking that White House correspondent April Ryan knows all of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But I also flash back to a conversation I had just a few weeks ago. During a general discussion of an article I'd just written about the use of "they" as a singular pronoun when gender isn't known, an older man called that "a load of PC crap." I suggested we change the subject.
"We can change the subject," he said angrily, "but I'm telling you right now. The most persecuted people in America right now are white men.")
- Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda
Doll, you make them feel so small And they love it!
– "Boys Wanna Be Her," Peaches
The show kicks off when Peaches comes out with her band, along with a violin player, and they burst into a kick-ass rendition of "Boys Wanna Be Her," the theme song to Full Frontal. When they finish playing, Sam Bee strides out onto the stage, looking smashing in a white pantsuit. The entire crowd stands up in a spontaneous ovation that goes on and on.
For a moment, it looks like Bee is going to cry out of embarrassment that she is being hailed as a conquering heroine. She sort of shyly admits that we are the "largest crowd" she has ever played in front of, and my brain does a double-take realizing that while she may be used to her show being beamed into millions of homes, she's not used to performing in front of a live audience of thousands.
And then, for the next 90 minutes of taping, everyone in the room is in heaven. Bee's delivery of jokes is rapid-fire, and half the problem with laughing too hard at one joke is that she's halfway into the delivery of the next before you start listening again. While comedians are trained not to step on their own lines, it's obvious that she was aware that if she were to wait until the laughter stopped after each of her jokes, we would be here until midnight, and she knew that the show was being taped for a one-hour showing on TBS later that night.
She rips into Trump with her trademark take-no-prisoners savagery: "The maker of 'American greatness again' ran away from the Vietnam War, he ran away from two Republican debates, and now he's run away from the Correspondents' Dinner. I guess we know why he wears those lumpy, ill-fitting, old man pants: It's because he's constantly shitting himself."
But Trump isn't the only one getting roasted. Press secretary Sean Spicer, CNN chief Jeff Zucker, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos all get theirs, too.
Bee has been front and center about holding white women accountable for Trump's election. The majority of white women voted for Trump, a number that embarrasses the hell out of me. "I don't want to hear a goddamn word about black voter turnout – how many times do we expect black people to build our country for us?" she said the night after the election, before telling white women that they had a tremendous amount of karma to make up for in the following four years.
The other common feeling in the crowd is that we're as angry as she is. She's pissed that we're watching our country burn down around our ears, and so are we.
The popular narrative is that it was a suddenly discovered "white working class" who put Trump in power (although the complications to that narrative – such as all the wealthy people in the beach communities in Florida who also voted for Trump – are rarely mentioned).
This poorly educated walking pus-sac of fragile ego somehow got elected president by telling disaffected white people that the reason they've been left behind has something to do with "big government." But "big government" provides OSHA inspectors who work to keep workers safe. Big government provides food inspectors to prevent fatal E. coli outbreaks. Big government provides for the maintenance of infrastructure, so bridges don't collapse while you're driving across them.
Trump also convinced white working folks that the reason they don't have jobs is because immigrants took them. Never mind that every white person living in the United States comes from an immigrant family, or that Trump has been married to two immigrants. Never mind when immigrants staged "A Day Without Immigrants," it led to the closures of businesses that couldn't function without their labor – work that white workers are unwilling to do.
What I hear discussed all night at Bee's Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner is a question: Where are we in this narrative? What about people who want to extend rights to everyone to share in the promise of America, who feel badly betrayed by the election of Trump, who want a government more focused on helping all than hurting some?
- Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda
So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
– "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," Elvis Costello & the Attractions
One thing that I received from the producers that I wasn't expecting was an invitation to the exclusive afterparty; only a fraction of the crowd who were at the Not the White House Correspondents Dinner are here. The swank party is being paid for by TBS, and the event is at the W Hotel, across the street from the White House and overlooking the Washington Monument.
It's an open bar, but I can't drink due to migraine medication I take, so I'm swilling gallons of club soda, trying to stay hydrated. The musical guest for the evening is Elvis Costello, and when the small group I'm hanging out with get word that he will be performing in about 20 minutes, we go and claim space by the stage and wait. All of us are around the same age – we would have all been freshmen in college during the early 1980s, peak Elvis Costello – and we know all the words to all the songs.
When Costello and his backing band, the Imposters, come out, it's magic. They tear through the first 30-minute set, which includes a sweet version of "Every Day I Write the Book." It ends right before 10 p.m., when all of the televisions in the bars tune in to the TBS broadcast of the show, and we all re-watch it, laughing again at the same jokes we howled at the first time.
Costello is set to take the stage to play his second set at 11:20, and again, we go into the small room and take our places by the stage. Something has changed: He's on fire, and he and his band are tight. Inside the small room, bodies press together, all of us in our formal clothes, pouring sweat. The energy levels rise. Costello plays the opening chords to "Pump It Up" and now we're all jumping up and down like pogo sticks, trying not to bump into one another but unable to keep still. The last notes of "Pump It Up" die, and the band segues into "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" The crowd is singing, and we're loud. Each time he gets to the essential question, he quiets his voice for us to take over. We're not even making an effort to sing anymore. We're shouting: WHAT'S SO FUNNY ABOUT PEACE, LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING?
We're not singing this song as a joke or ironically. Some of us are fighting back tears. Elvis Costello is leading us in a praise song right now, but the whole day has been church: Sam Bee called us together and filled our spirits with laughter while honoring our anger.
The song ends. Elvis tells us it's time to leave the building, and sends us out into the humid Washington night.