White House correspondents' dinner: Conan O'Brien too safe for 'nerd prom'?

The White House correspondents' dinner is about the hippest thing going, by D.C. standards. The host is always a big deal. So what does Conan O'Brien bring to the table?

Michael Dwyer/AP/File
Comedian Conan O'Brien will host the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on April 27.

Orange-haired late-night funnyman Conan O’Brian will perform at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Politico reported the news this morning and WHCA officials confirmed it later in the day. It will be the second appearance for Conan at the famous-for-Washington “Nerd Prom,” the capital’s annual gathering of celebrities, politicians, lobbyists, corporate executives, and a few working reporters.

Conan has done this once before, in 1995. Back then he made fun of Bill Clinton’s failed health-care reform effort, Judge Ito (remember the O.J. trial?), and Nick Nolte’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in a movie about same. But it was all fairly tame, despite Mr. O’Brien’s mid-'90s rep as the cutting-edge guy of late night.

That’s perhaps why he’s doing a return gig: The WHCA is all about safe at its dinner these days. It doesn’t want a rerun of the 2006 Stephen Colbert debacle. Mr. Colbert skewered President George W. Bush without mercy, and then moved on to savage the press and Washington in general. The C-SPAN audience might have loved it, but it didn’t play well in the room.

O’Brien is already making the sort of policy-based jokes Washingtonians like. On his Twitter feed Wednesday he said, “I’m honored to host the WH Correspondents dinner. Get ready for 2minutes of jokes, then 40 minutes on public employee pension reform.”

(Here’s what Washington is like: There will be people in the audience who will be disappointed when the pension-reform discussion doesn’t show up.)

Then there was his tweet from Feb. 18, in which he said that “in honor of Presidents’ Day, I won’t be getting along with Congress.”

See, that’s funny because in general the executive and legislative branches clash due to different prerogatives and priorities and ... oh, sorry, this isn’t Brookings?

Anyway, there are some people who think Conan is too safe. Right now, the WHCA is involved in a spat with the White House over not getting access to President Obama’s golf game with Tiger Woods last weekend and limited access in general. By going with a safe choice of entertainment, the group seems, well, toothless. Or at least overly fond of the status quo, according to Alyssa Rosenberg of the liberal ThinkProgress website.

“I’m not saying thinking more creatively and independently about who is going to host the Association’s dinner will come close to fixing all the problems of the White House press corps. But it might help the Association consider who it wants to represent the organization on that dais, what role it thinks it’s members have, and its own capacity to take a joke – and criticism,” Rosenberg writes.

As for us, we’re wondering what Conan is going to get paid. Ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now reportedly asking upwards of $200,000 per speech. Do comedians make that kind of money?

Not according to the Form 990s that the WHCA must file with the IRS. According to its paperwork for 2011, the latest available, that giant dinner grosses about $630,000. Of that, about $250,000 goes to charitable contributions for things such as journalism scholarships. In 2011, the room and food cost $382,000.

Entertainment? Their 2011 line item for that was a measly $10,000. Of course, the headliner that year was Seth Meyers, who is great on Saturday Night Live but not exactly making Jay Leno worry about his job.

Mr. Leno himself was the 2010 speaker. Entertainment that year cost $43,000, according to IRS records. Maybe O’Brien will get that. Or maybe all of the comedians should ring up Mrs. Clinton and ask for the name of her agent.

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