- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2009

Wanda Sykes’ comedic routine at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner Saturday night opened to mixed and in some cases decidedly poor reviews among Washington insiders and the general public.

As the entertainer of the evening, Ms. Sykes took shots at high-profile conservative figures, most notably radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

“Rush Limbaugh said he hopes this administration fails… . He just wants the country to fail. To me, that’s treason. He’s not saying anything different than what Osama bin Laden is saying. You might want to look into this, sir, because I think Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker. But he was just so strung out on OxyContin, he missed his flight… . Rush Limbaugh, ‘I hope the country fails,’ I hope his kidneys fail, how about that? He needs a good waterboarding, that’s what he needs,” Ms. Sykes joked.

Ms. Sykes also made a personal jab at Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose daughter Bristol recently became an unwed teenage mother.

“I know Governor Palin… . She’s not here tonight. She pulled out at the last minute. Somebody should tell her that’s not really how you practice abstinence.”

Reactions to Ms. Sykes’ comments were divided among members of the chattering classes in Washington.

At the Vanity Fair-Bloomberg party at the French Embassy, writer Christopher Hitchens told actor Richard Belzer that Ms. Sykes had broken with the traditional spirit of the annual event with her monologue, which affectionately tweaked the incumbent president and administration while reserving its heavy fire for former President George W. Bush and his defeated conservative allies.

Asked his professional opinion of the Limbaugh jokes, Mr. Belzer declined to be pinned down, citing the principle of comedic anarchy: “There are no laws in comedy.”

Ms. Sykes’ performance was the hot topic at the Sunday brunch hosted by John McLaughlin of the “McLaughlin Group.”

“In brief, I loved it,” liberal talk show host Bill Press told The Washington Times.

“It was edgy, but she knew her audience and played to them beautifully. Rush Limbaugh is an easy target, and I don’t think many were offended by it,” he said, referring to the large number of Hollywood industry insiders, who tend to have left-leaning political persuasions.

“I have been to 10 or 12 of these dinners, and I think this was one of the best.”

Conservative author and commentator Patrick J. Buchanan said Ms. Sykes’ routine was too shrill for his liking and the controversy surrounding her remarks may have eclipsed President Obama’s performance, which Mr. Buchanan described as “terrific.”

Even some liberals seemed to be divided on how they rated Ms. Sykes.

Writer and producer Lawrence O’Donnell said Ms. Sykes performance was “not funny” and was distasteful, “standard and uninspired.”

Mr. O’Donnell said his favorite comedic act was Mr. Bush’s 2001 performance at his first White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. “He was self-deprecating. That’s what the writers should go for. I don’t think Wanda’s writers did a very good job.”

Eleanor Clift of Newsweek and “The McLaughlin Group” said, “Overall it was fun, but during a few moments, I think she went over the top.”

Actress Kerry Washington said she sympathized with Ms. Sykes because “comedy is the hardest kind of performance to do.”

Dan Glickman, chairman and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, said Ms. Sykes’ performance was received differently among people inside and outside the Beltway.

“I think she took it to the edge, but not over the edge. I was sitting at a table with people from outside Washington, and they all thought it was terrific.”

The divided interpretation continued on the Web as some comments on blogs and Twitter took a harsh tone.

“Ms. Sykes, what a despicable character you are! Perhaps the one who should have pulled out was your father,” one blogger wrote on the Huffington Post.

Another commentator on Twitter wrote: “Wanda Sykes rocked! She boldly called a spade a spade (where spade equals unpatriotic druggie).”

In the end, some were just satisfied with a few laughs, regardless at whose expense.

“I’m just glad she didn’t bomb, because we’ve had a few of those at these dinners,” said Debbie Dingell, wife of Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat.

Daniel Wattenberg contributed to this report.

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