Colin Jost Falls Flat at White House Correspondents Dinner

The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner has occasionally featured some great stand-up comedy. This “S.N.L.” veteran’s set will not join that list.

People in the media have long worried about the impact of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on journalism. The concern is that it makes the press look too chummy with politicians it’s covering. But what is the impact on comedy?

A high-ceilinged hotel ballroom filled with television anchors and network executives is a tough room for stand-up, but no more so than an awards show. Trevor Noah was funnier two years ago at the dinner than he was at this year’s Grammys.

A murderer’s row (George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Conan O’Brien, Wanda Sykes) has taken this assignment because it’s one of the most high-profile live comedy sets of the year. And there has been one truly great performance (Stephen Colbert), some very good ones (Seth Meyers, Larry Wilmore) and one so thrillingly biting (Michelle Wolf) that the next year they replaced the comic with a historian.

Colin Jost’s set this year does not belong in that pantheon. Without his Weekend Update partner Michael Che next to him, he came off muted, vanilla, less assured than usual. With long pauses between jokes, eyes darting side to side, he occasionally took a drink of water and at least once acknowledged the lack of laughter in the room. His jokes leaned on wordplay more than a specific or novel perspective. “Some incredible news organizations here,” began one of his pricklier jokes, finished by: “Also, some credible ones.”

He focused much fire on former President Donald J. Trump. “Now that O.J.’s dead, who is the front-runner for V.P.?” he asked. “Diddy?” Like Biden, Jost has always benefited from low expectations. No one that handsome could be funny, right? But he has grown into his role at “Saturday Night Live,” proving to be an especially strong straight man adept at the comedy of embarrassment. You could see his timing in one of the odder moments when he said Robert Kennedy Jr. could be the third Catholic president and the C-SPAN camera cut to President Biden (the second) clapping. Jost retreated on Kennedy’s chances one beat later: “Like his vaccine card says, he doesn’t have a shot.”

For the third year in a row, President’s Biden’s age played a big role in the comedy (“Technology wasn’t invented when he was in high school,” Jost said of Biden), even in the president’s own set. Two years ago, Biden joked that he was friends with Calvin Coolidge. Last year, he referred to his “pal Jimmy Madison.” The president took a slightly different and more confrontational approach this time. “Age is an issue,” he said early. “I’m a grown man running against a 6-year-old.”

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