White House Correspondents’ dinner is the toughest room in comedy

For headliners, event is a political minefield

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What, exactly, are the rules? A quick primer:

Do be self-deprecating: Presidents can never go wrong mocking themselves. Or members of their staff. In fact, doing so is pretty much mandatory.

At the 2000 dinner, Mr. Clinton brought down the house with a six-minute farewell video that showed him wandering the empty halls of the White House, making origami ducks and playing Battleship with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — all of it spoofing the final, lame duck days of his administration.

In 2009, Mr. Obama made fun of both his own use of teleprompters and his vice president’s tendency to veer off script, cracking “in the next hundred days, I will learn to go off the prompter and Joe Biden will learn to stay on the prompter.” A few years earlier, Mr. Bush cleverly spoofed his reputation for self-confidence by joking, “I was going to start off tonight by telling some self-deprecating jokes, but then I couldn’t think of any mistakes I’ve made to be self-deprecating about.”

“The president is the most powerful person in the world, so the last thing you want to see is him being a bully,” Mr. Katz said. “That is why it’s so important to mock yourself. Only after you’ve done that will the audience let you poke fun at others.”

Don’t be overly partisan: Washington is a city divided, a realm of endless political warfare. Gentle jabs are OK, but dinner attendees are largely looking for a temporary cease-fire.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan both appeared alongside impersonators to well-received comic effect — the humor was in the mimicry, not the politics. By contrast, Seth Meyers last year reportedly ditched a series of planned gags about the 2012 Republican presidential field midroutine after realizing that Mr. Obama wasn’t laughing.

“You have to do political humor, but you don’t want to upset half the audience and get them against you,” said Howard Mortman, communications director at C-SPAN and a joke writer for Washington celebrities. “You need jokes that unify the room.

“We have all of the old performances at C-SPAN. I’ve gone back and looked at them, and the ones that work best make fun of Washington and the event itself. One year, President Clinton made a joke about the Taliban and the House Republicans. That didn’t go over so well.”

Don’t forget the larger audience: During the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents’ dinner — a close cousin to the White House Correspondents’ affair — Mr. Bush narrated a comic slideshow of photographs from inside the White House — one of them depicting the president looking under furniture in the Oval Office.

“Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere,” Mr. Bush said. “Nope, no weapons over there … maybe under here?” The joke prompted subsequent criticism from Democrats and Republican rebuttals, fueling a cable news cycle of partisan charge and countercharge.

“The WMD joke went over very well in the room, got a big laugh,” Mr. Parvin said. “We thought we were making fun of ourselves, and no one would ever use a joke if they thought it would be harmful or hurtful in any way.

“But you make mistakes. In retrospect, it was a political mistake and was used for political purposes. That’s why these events are not as much fun as they look.”

A chance to talk back

Indeed, the dinner’s biggest potential humor pitfall is getting sucked into a media-powered, Internet-turbocharged vortex of umbrage taking, a familiar Washington kabuki played for political points. For performers and joke writers, that means watching what they say; for presidents, that means watching what they laugh at, too: When Miss Sykes was criticized for her jokes about Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Obama took heat for appearing to smirk at them.

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