Leno at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: He’s No Obama

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Our colleague Richard Zoglin files this from Saturday night’s big event:

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.

Maybe you have to know the room. Obama’s material was a canny mix of self-deprecation and score settling with the various constituencies in the hall. “I may not have the star power that I once had,” he admitted, talking about his dropping approval ratings to the assembled journalists. “But in my defense, neither do all of you.” He took on old foes: John McCain “recently claimed he had never identified himself as a maverick,” said the President. “And we all know what happens in Arizona when you don’t have ID.” And new ones: “All the jokes tonight are brought to you by our friends at Goldman Sachs,” Obama said. “So you don’t have to worry. They make money whether you laugh or not.”

But 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.

Not that he could have done much with the pedestrian material. He joked about Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign (“Leave no child with a bigger behind,” he dubbed it). He went to the trunk for more John McCain-is-old jokes. (If McCain had been elected, said Leno, the dinner “could have been an early-bird special.”) The crowd seemed a step ahead of him more than once, as when Jay noted that the Louisiana oil spill may wind up being “bigger than that huge disaster they had up in Alaska.” (All together now.) “Really? Bigger than Sarah Palin?”

Leno padded out his routine with video clips, a combination of real-life blooper reels (Joe Biden forgetting the name of the movie Avatar), jokey reediting jobs (Michelle’s appeal on obesity combined with clips of Barack wolfing down burgers) and Tonight-style comedy bits, like a fake ad for trading in your kids who are failing in school, dubbed Cash for Flunkers. Among the graying band of Leno lovers on TV at 11:30 p.m., maybe. In front of the Washington’s movers and shakers — uh-uh.

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.

Richard Zoglin is assistant managing editor of Time.com and author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America.