Back in January when it was announced, Samantha Bee’s Not The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was meant to be an alternative to the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Dinner. The annual banquet—which traditionally features comedians roasting the president—had suddenly become controversial in the age of Trump. With a president who has declared the press “the enemy of the people” occupying the Oval Office, some commentators were calling for an end to the star-studded gala. The event’s atmosphere of good-natured ribbing seemed increasingly inappropriate with every tweet labeling the mainstream media #fakenews.
But once POTUS Number 45 announced his intention to skip the WHCAD—the first time a sitting president has declined the invitation since Ronald Regan—Bee’s event felt like it lost some of its sting. After all, if host Hasan Minhaj (The Daily Show) and the other comedians tapped for the April 29 event in Washington, D.C., felt freer, in Trump’s absence, to really let loose on the president, what was the point of roasting him on TBS? If the WHCAD was once again a safe space for journalists and entertainers, did the Full Frontal host really need to create one as well?
“Did this event lose some of its sting,” Alysia Reiner of Better Things and Orange is the New Black repeated thoughtfully at the show’s after party at the W Hotel. “No. It made me really happy that I chose the right party!”
Despite its very serious purpose—ticket sales raised nearly $200,000 for the Committee to Protect Journalists’ efforts to combat the administration’s perceived campaign to intimidate the press—the NotTheWHCD, like the more traditional event, was always meant to be a celebration. The mood had certainly been festive as people arrived on the purple carpet outside DAR Constitution Hall earlier in the day. There were the musicians Tegan and Sara done up in dapper suits. Search Party’s Alia Shawkat looked genuinely thrilled to see co-star John Early when he finally made his way into the venue.
Inside the hall’s lobby, VIPs paused to chat with Full Frontal correspondents Ashley Nicole Black and Allana Harkin on what could probably best be described as a “step-and-retweet,” backed by LED screens that flashed Twitter barbs aimed at Trump from journalists like April Ryan, Jake Tapper, Don Lemon and others. “Leak Boxes” were set up next to the open bar, in case any D.C. insiders happened to have anything they wanted to share with the group.
The show itself was equal parts salute to real journalism and Trump roast, but the media didn’t get off entirely scot-free. Bee pulled no punches when it came to CNN honcho Jeff Zucker’s cynical perspective on the role of cable news.
Probably the most affecting part of the show, however, was Bee’s “Woman in the High Castle” segment. “We did something a little more conceptual,” she warned the audience before the clip, which riffed on Netflix’s The Man in the High Castle to imagine a world in which Hillary actually won the election. It was a bittersweet moment in a show full of laughs. One young woman who works in public policy said that a few people at her table were actually choking back tears imagining what could have been.
“Is everybody having an OK time?” Bee asked between segments. “Is everybody drunk?” It was before 4pm, but judging from the number of glasses that could be heard shattering up in the cheap seats, I’d say they were!
The drinking continued later at the W’s penthouse bar overlooking the White House, where the conversation was more about Will Ferrell’s surprise appearance in character as George W. Bush than real politics.
For Shawkat, it was all about musical guest, Peaches, who opened and closed the show with a performance “Boys Wanna Be Her,” Full Frontal’s theme song. “I loved it, I had the best time! Peaches was the best part!” Shawkat gushed before throwing herself into the singer’s arms and posing for photos with Reiner.
“Why would we want to spend tonight, of all nights, talking about politics when we’re going to have to deal with it on Monday? This is our weekend away from the BS,” said comedian and podcast host Hadiyah Robinson.
That was the general consensus of the night. “I feel like we’ve seen it all. We absorbed it all during the show. We all get it,” Parks and Recreation’s Retta echoed. “We know we’re all on the same side of this war. Let’s have a moment of reprieve at the party.”
Along with a performance by Elvis Costello and a drink menu that included cocktails like “The Orange Russian,” the party also featured a phone bank where guests could “drunk dial their legislator.”
“I was drunk dialing Chuck [Schumer] and I couldn’t get through because we announced it on the show and his mailbox is full,” Full Frontal’s Allana Harkin said. “So I’m going to do it again tomorrow morning when I’m hungover!”
More than one D.C. local admitted that what made the event so special for them was the opportunity to not talk about politics at a party. “I think everyone wants to, like, aggressively not talk about that,” Reason Magazine’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown said. “Most of the time at D.C. parties you can’t stop talking about politics. But every now and then you can, and it’s a beautiful, magical thing!”
Turns out, the feeling was mutual. "I don't think I've ever had as much fun as a performer as I've had tonight," Bee said closing the show earlier. "Let's all make out after the show!"