When Conan O’Brien took the stage Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he looked a bit like a giant, flame-haired mannequin, smiling tensely and reciting his jokes with one eye trained on his notes. His political barbs were toothless (“It gives me great pleasure to know that if the president ever has to let [Jack Lew] go, he’ll be able to say, it’s not Lew, it’s me”) and his delivery was unusually stiff. It was a far cry from his 1995 performance, in which he was loose and weird and confident, barely glancing down at the podium. In ’95 not every joke landed—and watching the monologue eighteen years later is a strange, head-scratching little time capsule to the nineties’ political landscape—but still Conan on the whole was irreverent and breezily self-assured. He interviewed a giant, animated photograph of the president, a stunt familiar from his NBC talk show, as the real Clinton cracked up onstage. Some of his most astute media jokes even work in today’s context: “I think the press should be applauded from finally shifting focus from Mrs. Clinton’s hairstyle to [O.J. Simpson prosecutor] Marcia Clark’s,” he said.
It was a different room on Saturday night. O’Brien’s politics jokes in particular were so anodyne that the crowd barely registered the gentlest surprise. (“When you think about it, the president and I are a lot alike: We both went to Harvard, we both have two children, and we both told Joe Biden we didn’t have extra tickets to tonight’s event.”) His speech was peppered with the kind of post-NBC phony self-lacerations familiar to viewers of his TBS talk show. (“Last year Tom Brokaw criticized this event for having too many superstars and A-list celebrities. When I told Tom I’d be attending this year’s event, he said, that’s more like it.”) It was disappointing because Conan’s edgy but sensitive style (see his TBS monologue after Boston, for instance) seemed like the perfect fit for the current political mood. And also because this year, in the wake of the marathon bombings—difficult to satirize politically, but ripe for satirizing the circus of broadcast news—the media deserved some particularly tough potshots.
In the past few years—as the lunacy of the partisan news landscape has escalated—most of the best WHCD jokes have been at the expense of the press. The two hosts who preceded Conan, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers, were particularly sharp on this front. Meyers struck the ideal balance of Hollywood and media and politics, spoofing the media with weird, precise imagery: Highlights included “Donald Trump often appears on Fox, which is ironic, because a Fox often appears on Donald Trump’s head” and “You can always tell how much danger Anderson Cooper is in by how tight his clothing is.” Kimmel, too, slung some choice TV news zingers: “FOX News is the grumpy old man of cable. Loud, stubborn, a little out of touch with reality, just had a mole removed.”
But O’Brien’s media quips were notably lightweight. (It should be said that he had a few great ones: for instance, “The print media are here for two very good reasons, food and shelter” and “This dinner is like high school: Fox is the jocks, MSNBC is the nerds. … NPR is the table for kids with peanut allergies.”) Overall, though, he mostly played it safe with truistic Internet jokes. “If any of you are live-tweeting this event,” he said, “please use the hashtag ‘incapable of living in the moment.’” “I see the Huffington Post has a table, which has me wondering, if you’re here, who is covering Miley Cyrus’s latest nip slip? Who is assembling today’s top 25 yogurt-related tweets?” He barely grazed the mess of broadcast news, making one John King crack and dropping in some earnest flattery of non-CNN Boston coverage. “MSNBC’s Chuck Todd stopped a pundit from speculating on unverified information. There’s no joke here, I’m just letting the people at CNN know that you can do that.”
Fortunately, Obama skewered the media effectively enough for the two of them. “I know CNN has taken some knocks lately, but the fact is I admire their commitment to cover all sides of a story, just in case one of them happens to be accurate,” he said. Also: "David Axelrod now works for MSNBC, which is a nice change of pace, since MSNBC used to work for David Axelrod." And what was perhaps the best line of the night belonged to the president instead of the host: “I remember when Buzzfeed was something I did in college at 2 a.m.” Of course, Obama's general air of above-the-fray detachment has always made for sly comedy in situations like this. But Conan's problem on Saturday was that—in front of a crowd primed to be roasted—he still seemed most comfortable as the butt of his own jokes.