Will White House Correspondents’ Dinner be funny?
(CNN) — President Barack Obama has had to give some tough speeches in the past couple of weeks. From consoling Boston and West, Texas to scolding Congress for failing to pass gun control legislation, the president’s messages have been heavy.
As he gears up to speak at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner–a typically light-hearted Beltway event that brings Hollywood to Washington–will the president deliver the traditional comedic routine? Or will he play it straight, as presidents have done in the past during times of tragedy.
Since the 1980s, comedic performers in addition to the president have consistently performed at the dinner, held each year to raise scholarship money for journalism students. Talk show host Conan O’Brien will headline this year’s event for the second time. He first performed in 1995 during President Bill Clinton’s first term.
Saturday’s event marks Obama’s fifth dinner. Wanda Sykes, Jay Leno, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel spoke at the previous events.
The president has received high praise in the past for his delivery the one-liners typically given at such events. Last year he made light of the Secret Service scandal in Colombia, the lavish spending at a government conference and real-estate titan and reality star Donald Trump.
But with the last two weeks marked by the terror attack in Boston, the plant explosion in Texas, an earthquake in China, a devastating building collapse in Bangladesh, and an ongoing investigation over who mailed a ricin letter to the president, the normally-festive dinner this weekend comes amid bleak headlines.
Presidents in the past have taken different tones during such dour periods. In 2003, President George W. Bush delivered a solemn address, paying tribute to two journalists who were killed in Iraq: Michael Kelly and David Bloom.
A year later, Bush gave a few zingers but mostly kept things low key. Five of the eight minutes he spoke were devoted to a serious message about the service of Americans – in the news media and the military – in what the president called “a period of testing and sacrifice.”
Democrats had charged Bush “crossed the line” a month prior when he gave a stand-up performance at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents’ dinner, including a comedic slide show about his search for WMDs.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton gave a mostly-serious speech, as the dinner came 10 days after the Oklahoma City Bombing, which left 168 dead–including 19 children under the age of six–and injured more than 600 others.
“You know, I practiced for this night. I had all this humor and everything but…the book of Proverbs says ‘A happy heart doeth good medicine, and a broken spirit dries the bones.’ And I believe that. But I think you will all understand that–and I hope my wonderful comedy writers will understand–if I take a few minutes tonight not to be too funny.”
He went on to acknowledge the recovery efforts still underway at the time and expressed appreciation to the press for their coverage of the disaster.
“I think you have made an extraordinary effort to capture both the horror and the humanity in the situation,” he said, urging the media to return to Oklahoma and share the stories of those overcoming the tragedy.
Regardless of Obama’s approach this year, it’s likely he’ll be criticized for not being funny, being funny to begin with or not being funny enough.