Joel McHale is host of the E! show The Soup and, more importantly, the star of a low-rated sitcom, NBC’s Community, that will be analyzed for years to come for its ingenuity, absurdity and keen sense of what it’s like to surf and even drown in the great big ocean of American pop culture.
His night as the comic headliner for the 2014 White House Correspondents’ Dinner I’m going to just try and forget.
I’m working on it. I still have a few images of Seth MacFarlane hosting the 2013 Oscars that I haven’t completely pinged out of my synapses.
McHale, 42, gave probably the worst performance I’ve seen at the press corps dinner, now known with a rather affected adorableness as the “nerd prom.”
This felt more like the finale of Carrie.
Ostensibly a roast of the President and, to varying degrees, Washington journalists and politicians, it was closer to scorched earth.
McHale is actually very funny, but his humor is marked by satirical, judgmental scorn – a perfectly legitimate scorn, in our or any age, but one that didn’t play well at Saturday’s event in the nation’s capital.
McHale, who looked quite pleasant and even boyish talking with Michelle Obama before his performance, stood before the crowd, narrowed his eyes and, like a very young Captain Ahab confronted with a shelf of plush white whales in a toy store, shot off one harpoon after another.
Curiously, few of these insults had anything to do with President Obama. McHale hit on one good riff about the second term, imagining “HealthCare.gov” as shorthand for everything and anything awful, including the latest Johnny Depp movie. But then he was off, attacking a broad range of other human targets.
He didn’t miss, but he did aim low.
He said that you knew the Kardashians were Republican “because they’re always trying to screw black people.”
He said that “every year the White House doctor checks the President’s colon for polyps and George Clooney‘s head.”
The single nastiest joke began with a reference to Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy and managed to pivot (as they say) into an allusion to cigars, President Clinton and, implicitly, Monica Lewinsky.
The audience groaned at that. “You guys sound like you’re on a roller coaster right now,” said McHale. Yes, and they maybe wanted off. But that would have meant reporters in fancy dress and the cast of Scandal streaming in panic for the exit doors, and that would have made for an indecorous end to the night.
McHale pressed on, regardless, as if Ricky Gervais were crouched down behind him, sniggering and poking him in the back. Except that Gervais has a kind of damp pathos, even at his meanest, while McHale is lettuce-crisp. He does not wilt.
He segued from a vulgar gag about Donald Trump‘s hair, which even Mother Teresa probably joked about in her prayers at some point, into a needlessly long attack on Chris Christie of New Jersey. He also made fun of Ted Nugent, the next Transformers movie and Robert DeNiro.
He was close to inspired when he tried to cram together Vladimir Putin and Bruce Jenner into the same joke, but the link would have had to have been something stronger and funnier than their mutual penchant for plastic surgery.
Well, it was a mess, and I wish it weren’t.
President Obama, who spoke first, was a good deal funnier – needling, but never going too far. He would have been even better if the cutaway visuals for some of his jokes hadn’t been mistimed.