The new and old media conventional wisdom is shaping up: President Barack Obama wowed ’em in his comedy set at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner while headliner Jay Leno seemed off his game.
Here’s the full video of the two stand-up bits so you can judge for yourself:
Here are some of my observations (my earlier ones are on my Twitter account) on these two comedy sets that were in each case written by comedy writers. But they key to remember is this: both Obama and Leno were also the ultimate editor of what jokes they would and would not do (Letterman skipped a barbed joke aimed at Leno this week).
OBAMA: As can be expected, Obama had good material to work with. He has excellent timing and a sense of irony. And his delivery has improved since last year when he laughed at lot more at the jokes he was about to do. Some of his jokes got groans but overall his timing and delivery was excellent. Perhaps next year he can work on not laughing at his own material.
LENO: Leno is taking some unfair criticism. Aside from his bad p.r. image due to the mess with Conan O’Brien, he is considered the ultimate comedian workhorse. Some things to consider:
1. In this case, he had to follow a President who was armed with solid comedy material and who knew how to deliver a joke, where to pause, and what words to emphasize. A President who can do a comedy set is hard act to follow. As an entertainer, I can tell you that following an act is an art. If the other act was successful then unconsciously or not you’re being compared to him.
2. Leno had good, solid, standard monologue material.
4. Leno was NOT bad and he did NOT bomb.
5. It’s unlikely he WANTED to be risky or to become the news story of the day. Unlike some past headliners, he didn’t need to be the buzz tomorrow because he said something controversial or outrageous. He is now rebounding from the p.r. disaster of the Tonight Show slot and building back his ratings. It’s most likely that he wanted to do a good job — good enough to regain some of the perceived status loss due to the O’Brien controversy. But he didn’t want to be another Don Imus or Stephen Colbert.
5. Leno seemed to have jokes that he decided could have a string but not too much — compared to Obama who seemed to select jokes that had a much bigger sting.
6. In some instances Leno’s timing seemed off. On his show his delivery is crisper; here he seems at times as if he’s making sure he does not deviate from his script. It’s no sin to look at note cards, but he seemed more focused on going through his prepared material as written than delivering a set that could be conversational.
7. Leno opted to do what David Letterman disastrously did at the Oscars more than 10 years ago: he basically did his night show monologue with little change at the press event. Good decision: since it usually works. Bad decision: since not just the room but the setting is so different, even different from a comedy club or corporate gig. Transplanting almost totally a segment from a TV show traditionally doesn’t seem to work well at these gigs.
8. He should not have said “tough room” at all on this gig. It is traditionally a tough (for a professional comedian even thankless) room. But saying it then colors how some people perceive it went and there are some in the new and old media who are looking for things negative to write about him due to their sympathies for O’Brien.
9. . Even with his timing off, Leno probably comes out of it unscathed and a pro. His problem is that his opening act was a bigger hit due to Obama’s comedy material, persona and delivery.
GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE DEPARTMENT. Read all of the above and my Twitter account. Now here are some extended excerpts from Time Magazine’s Richard Zoglin:
Jay Leno was a disappointingly safe choice as host of this year’s White House Correspondents’ dinner. Still, there was some logic to it. At a time of bitter partisan rancor in Washington, the press group clearly felt no urge to risk stirring up more ill will with a real political satirist like Stephen Colbert (who skewered the Bush gang back in ’06) or a loose cannon like Wanda Sykes (who last year labeled Rush Limbaugh “the 20th hijacker” because he’s rooting for Obama to fail). You could even argue it was an ideal time for Leno to trade barbs with President Obama. Both got big promotions last year. Both ran into unforeseen problems. And both rebounded quite nicely in the end. Leno’s flailing attempt at a prime-time program on NBC was mercifully canceled, and he was awarded his old job back as Tonight show host. Obama got health care passed.
Still, the lopsided result of Saturday night’s comedy faceoff at the Washington Hilton was a little startling. Leno, the workaholic comedy pro, got bested by the stand-up neophyte onstage, Barack Obama.
He then notes the dynamics of the room and how that played to Obama’s advantage.
But he — like me — contends it wasn’t just the material:
As a stand-up comic, Obama has mastered the timing, the deadpan misdirection, the rhetorical sucker punch. He scoffed at charges that there are secret provisions in the new health care bill: “That’s ridiculous. There aren’t a few secret provisions.” (Beat.) “There are, like, hundreds.” Or his take on Congressman Eric Massa’s account of Rahm Emanuel’s temper tantrum in the locker room of the congressional gym. “He claims that Rahm started screaming obsenities at him,” said the President. “To which I say, welcome to my world.”
Maybe it was the big laughs Obama drew that unnerved Leno, because he seemed off his game from the get-go. He started at top speed, rushed his lines, seemed too tied to his notes (no Tonight show Teleprompter) and made little effort to connect with the crowd in any real sense.
Zoglin — Time’s assistant managing editor of Time.com and author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America — say Leno’s material was pedestrian compared to Obama’s and concludes:
Too bad. Leno may be the last exemplar of the Bob Hope-Johnny Carson tradition of mainstream, offend-no-one political humor. It’s not exactly in vogue these days — we want our satirists angry, like Jon Stewart or Bill Maher or David Letterman — but it’s a worthy tradition. Even, in a toxic and dysfunctional political climate, the sort of comedy that can defuse tensions, help to heal.
Sorry, not this year.
UPDATE: Here’s some more reaction to the dueling monologues:
Well if his day job doesn’t end up working out President Barack Obama may have a comedy career to fall back on. Obama addressed the star-studded crowd (for Washington, anyway) at the White House Correspondents dinner tonight — a.k.a the “nerd prom” — and from all accounts he stole the show. Poor Jay Leno, after the the whole Team Coco debacle he now has to follow a President who can bring the funny. Serious funny. This man is not afraid to take a shot for the sake of a good laugh.
I’ve been watching these things for years, and Saturday’s was far and away the most boring and least entertaining WHCD in a while.
In fact, after Obama finished, I tweeted:
Well, fortunately for Jay, that’s the WORST act he’s ever followed!!! Got to be up from here!!
In fairness, Leno wasn’t much better; it might have been the worst performance of Leno’s life.
But does that mean Obama “killed” or they both bombed?
—Talk show host Alan Colmes, who has worked as a stand-up comedian:
Should he fail to win a second term, President Obama may have a future on the comedy circuit.
With a litany of zingers both political and pop-cultural, President Obama showed Jay Leno what it means to give someone a good lead-in….Watching Obama deliver one-liners made me think that, if this whole president thing doesn’t end up working out, he might be a good replacement for Leno. (And our TV critic Ken Tucker agrees Leno failed to impress at the dinner last night.) I doubt NBC would mind just one more late-night switch-up. What do you think, PopWatchers? Was Obama better than Leno? Should POTUS start working Tuesdays at the Comedy Cellar, or should he not quit his day job?
I didn’t think it was possible to come up with a worse comedic performance than Rich Little’s, at George Bush’s 2007 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, but last night Jay Leno managed to be not merely less funny, but also seemed uncharacteristically irritated. He rushed through one tepid joke after another. When many were met with only mild laughs, Leno resorted to that oldest of comedian complaints — he actually said, “Ooh, this is a tough room.” No, tough was sitting through jokes about Betty White being as old as Abraham Lincoln…
Jay Leno has more to worry about than Letterman. The “Tonight” host was the headliner at Saturday’s White House Correspondents Dinner. But it was the opening act — a local comic named Barack Obama — who killed.
“His timing was impeccable,” Scarlett Johansson said of the Commander-of-Schtick.
“Knocked Up” director Judd Apatow said speechwriter Jon Lovett gave his boss some knockout material about birthers, Biden and McCain. But it was all in the delivery.
“I’m sure they gave the President twice as many jokes,” Apatow told us. “I think a lot of the success had to to with the ones the President chose. His taste is impeccable He also let himself be funny. Most of the time the job demands that he hold back.”
“Jay wasn’t bad, “ said one guest. “The video bits were nice. But he was reading from notecards. The gags didn’t fly.
The rumble at the MGM Grand, featuring Floyd “Money” Mayweather and “Sugar” Shane Mosley, was not the only one sided victory to take place last night.
On the other side of the country, in the nation’s capital, Hollywood and Washington came together for the annual battle for political comedy supremacy. It was Obama versus Leno – and the bout produced a winner by knock-out.
Playing it safe with a fairly dull routine that elicited little in the way of big laughs or meaningful ‘boos’, he never really reached the level of comedy attained by predecessors lobbing the grenades at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
Of course I’m speaking of Jay Leno.
Obama was terrific.
….While it is not surprising that Obama had top notch material, what surprised was the quality of his delivery. While Leno simply rapid fired dull jokes which he read off a stack of index cards he held on the podium, the president’s timing was skilled and honed as if he were the professional comedian in the room (an open invitation to all you Republicans and Tea Partiers to insert your own punch line.)
The returns from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner are in. Lloyd Grove on how the president thoroughly upstaged the king of late-night comedy at Washington’s media prom.
Obama killed. Leno died.
Once again, the standup routines of Barack Obama and then Jay Leno at the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday night demonstrated that the most dangerous job is comedy is following the president of the United States—especially when the latter has better writers.
…Even correcting for an undoubtedly unfair comedy advantage (in which any joke uttered by any president is automatically five notches funnier than the same one that slipped off the tongue of a mere mortal), Obama is a natural entertainer who has, among all the other things he has been doing in the past year, sharpened his comic timing and delivery.
Leno, while entirely competent, recycled and repurposed old material from his television show—and even made a mother-in-law joke. After one of his japes was greeted by eerie silence, it was hard not to feel a tinge of sympathy for him when he marveled desperately, “This is a tough room!”
But not for Obama, who pretty much scored on every shot.
President George W. Bush caused controversy in the past by actually making fun of the fact that he and his administration never found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We went to war for misguided, false reasons! Hilarious!
Last night, though, Obama kept his routine mostly safe, but altogether hilarious. ..Leno, of course, was his typical lame, unfunny self. He delivered such gems as referring to Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign as “Leave no child with a bigger behind.”
The First Yuckster at the White House Correspondents Dinner tonight taunted Jay Leno before The Tonight Show host took the podium. “I am glad that the only person whose ratings fell more than mine is here tonight. Great to see you, Jay. I’m also glad that I’m speaking first — because we’ve all seen what happens when somebody takes the time slot after Leno.” Jay was seen laughing, turning red, and then standing up and saying to the people around him, “Goodnight, everybody.”
Leno quickly tried to return the favor during his 4th stand-up appearance at the dinner. But I can’t point to single joke that killed wih the crowd. Instead, Leno’s barbs aimed at Obama were mostly dull…
…The laughs were few and far between despite Leno using a mutimedia combination of traditional punchlines, sight gags, and video mashups just like he does on The Tonight Show. Leno’s blandness meant he took only gentle aim at both the Democrats and the Republicans.
Obama, you’re a pretty funny guy! Excellent timing and the deadpan thing really works for you. But don’t quit your day job. Not because you’re not funny, but because that would mean Joe Biden would be president.
In all Obama was just plain funnier than Jay Leno. It seemed Leno was searching for the one punch line that would get him going, but he remained stuck in the mud.
What did you think? Would Conan O’Brien have been funnier?
Going into Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the advice for Leno was this: Be funnier than Rich Little, but not as brash as Stephen Colbert. Both comedians were criticized for their past WHCD performances.
In those respects, Leno succeeded, earning his reputation as one of the safest comedians around, neither tearing the house down nor causing a room full of awkward silences. He adhered to the dinner’s primary rule: “Singe, but do not burn.”
…Obama, on the other hand, showed off his comedic chops. Along the way he elicited some good laughs from the crowd, and he showed himself capable of laughing at himself, his staff, his opponents and his work.
Walter Shapiro is one of the country’s best columnists — someone who’s written for both print (USA Today) and internet (now on Politics Daily). He has also done stand-up comedy (and I have heard he is quite good). So his comments need to be looked at in some detail since he is someone who also does comedy. Here are excerpts from his long Politics Daily post:
Death be not proud – especially when it is on stage in Washington in front of 3,000 reporters, government officials and B-list celebrities. Not since Jay Leno moved to prime time has there been a comic disaster to rival … well … Jay Leno’s performance Saturday night at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Maybe Leno’s problem was his position on the night’s lineup as the closing act following Barack Obama, a president whose natural humor is not so much understated as dehydrated. Obama – whose arsenal clearly includes witty writers as well as predator drones – proved to be the master of the sly one-liner.
…Leno’s humor was about as edgy as a Bob Hope USO routine…Like so much in politics, Leno’s blandness was an over-reaction to what happened last year. The 2009 entertainer Wanda Sykes (who, unlike Leno, got real laughs) crossed every line in creation by suggesting that “maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was just so strung out on Oxycontin he missed his flight.”
The robotic quality of Leno’s routine was underscored by his refusal to jettison stale jokes that had already been appropriated by Obama, such as the inevitable-for-Washington swipe at House Minority Leader John Boehner’s all-season tan….
But there was probably no larger meaning to the Leno letdown Saturday night other than Washington is not his kind of town…Leno’s time-tested ability to be famously inoffensive all but guarantees that he will headline a future correspondents dinner. It is already hard to contain the anticipation waiting for the next round of Leno’s Washington mother-in-law jokes.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.