The line that came to define his riff, as the one most cited and bounced around on social media was: “Only in America can a first-generation Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president.”
“The leader of our country is not here,” Minhaj said in the opening minutes, “because he lives in Moscow, it’s a long flight .. and hard for Vlad to make it … as for the other guy … I think he is in Pennsylvania because he cannot take a joke.”
But the line that came to define his riff, as the one most cited and bounced around on social media was this: “Only in America can a first-generation Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president.”
And this on a more serious note, that also received quite a few mentions: “The president didn’t show up. Because Donald Trump doesn’t care about free speech. The man who tweets everything that comes into his head doesn’t show up to celebrate the amendment that allows him to do it.”
While the White House Correspondents’ Dinner had no doubt degenerated into a vulgar mélange of media and celebrity—President Obama, as you may recall, took aim at Pepsi spokeswoman Kendall Jenner for being prominently displayed at the USA Today table last year—the 2011 edition nonetheless proved to be a history-defining event.
That year, then-President Barack Obama and host Seth Meyers lit a fire under Donald Trump with a deliciously inventive panoply of insults, teeing off on everything from his New Yawk accent and elaborate coif to his time hosting The Celebrity Apprentice. Trump, a real estate tycoon who’d recently made a name for himself spearheading the racist birther movement against the first black president, was there as a guest of The Washington Post, and with each stinging barb, the camera trained on the stone-faced mogul, seething with anger. He later called Meyers’s remarks “nasty” and “out of order.”
“I saw him a couple of nights afterward at an event in New York, and I walked over to thank him for being a good sport and he really impressed on me then that I had taken it too far,” Meyers told THR. “He did not accept my offer of good sport.”
“That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature in the political world,” wrote the New York Times.
And so President Trump, still nursing a bruised ego from that memorable evening, decided to opt out of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner in favor of a safer space: a rally for his fans in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “A large group of Hollywood actors and the nation’s media are gathered in a ballroom consoling each other,” Trump remarked, while consoling himself. “I could not be more thrilled to be more than 100 miles away from the Washington swamp with a much larger crowd and much better people.”
The president’s wife, meanwhile, remained about 170 miles away in the Big Apple.
After a whole bunch of redundant remarks from old white people about the importance of freedom of the press in the age of “fake news,” Minhaj, a gifted Indian-American Muslim comic, poked fun at the administration’s anti-Muslim stances by announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. My name is Hasan Minhaj, or as I’ll be known in a few weeks: #830287.”
“I would say it is an honor to be here, but that would be an alternative fact,” he added. “It is not. No one wanted to do this, so of course it lands in the hands of an immigrant. That’s how it always goes down.”
Then, Minhaj addressed “the elephant that’s not in the room,” President Trump. After repeatedly referring to him as “King Joffrey,” and joking that “he’s in Pennsylvania because he can’t take a joke,” the comedian dropped several jokes at the commander-in-chief’s expense.
“I get why Donald Trump didn’t want to be roasted tonight. By the looks of him, he’s been roasting non-stop for the last 70 years,” went one.
“Historically, the president usually performs at the Correspondents’ Dinner. But I think I speak for all of us when I say: he’s done far too much bombing this month,” went another, to groans from the crowd.
Several of Minhaj’s jokes didn’t land smoothly, owing to a combination of the odd atmosphere in the room created by mocking someone in absentia, the media’s self-importance, and Minhaj’s oft-frantic delivery.
One of the jokes that did land concerned Trump’s teetotaler reputation. “You know Donald Trump doesn’t drink, right? Does not touch alcohol. Which is oddly respectable. But think about that. That means every statement, every interview, every tweet: completely sober. How is that possible?” asked Minhaj. “He tweets at 3 a.m. sober! Who is tweeting at 3 a.m. sober?! Donald Trump, because it’s 10 a.m. in Russia. Those are business hours.”
There were others that landed cleanly too, including one targeting Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, former overlord of “the platform for the alt-right” (Bannon’s words), Breitbart.
“Now, a lot of people think Steve Bannon is the reason Donald Trump dog-whistles to racists. And that is just not true,” said Minhaj. “Ask Steve Bannon. Is Steve Bannon here? I do not see Steve Bannon. I do not see Steve Bannon. Nazi Steve Bannon. Nazi Steve Bannon. Nazi Steve Bannon.”
And others, like this one on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that grew moans and groans from the lame crowd: “Jeff Sessions couldn’t be here tonight. He was busy doing a pre-Civil War reenactment. On his RSVP he just wrote “No!” which happens to be his second favorite N-word.”
The crowd of media players also grumbled at the following jokes aimed at Fox News and MSNBC:
“Fox News is here. I’m amazed you guys even showed up. How are you here in public? It’s hard to trust you guys when you backed a man like Bill O’Reilly for years, but it finally happened: Bill O’Reilly has been fired. But then, you gave him a $25 million severance package—making it the only package he won’t force a woman to touch. Now, in O’Reilly’s defense, he was told by a close friend: ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it… You can do anything.’”
“MSNBC is here tonight, and I’m glad you guys are here tonight. That way if I’m bombing, Brian Williams will describe it as ‘stunning.’”
The laughs grew louder, however, when Minhaj took on his “favorite entertainment channel,” CNN.
“Now, you guys got some really weird trust issues going on with the public,” joked Minhaj. “I’m not going to call you ‘fake news,’ but everything isn’t breaking news. You can’t go to DEFCON 1 just because Sanjay Gupta found a new moisturizer. Every time a story breaks, you guys go to nine screens. Nine boxes on the screen. I’m trying to watch the news, not pick a player in Street Fighter.”
“All you guys do is stoke up conflict,” he continued, aiming his ire at Don Lemon. “Don, every time I watch your show it feels like I’m watching a reality TV show. CNN Tonight should just be called: Wait a Second, Now Hold On, Stop Yelling at Each Other with Don Lemon. You know you’re news, right? Come on! But every time I watch CNN it feels like you’re assigning me homework: ‘Is Trump a Russian spy? I don’t know, you tell me. Tweet us @AC360.’ No, you tell me! I’m watching the news! But it feels like I’m watching CNN watch the news.”
Minhaj brought it back in the end—and seemed to finally win over the crowd—with a bit comparing the mainstream media to castigated minorities in Trump’s America.
“I don’t have a solution on how to win back trust. I don’t. But in the age of Trump, I know that you guys have to be more perfect now more than ever, because you are how the president gets his news. Not from advisers, not from experts, not from intelligence agencies—you guys,” said Minhaj. “So that’s why you gotta be on your A game, you gotta be twice as good, you can’t make any mistakes, because when one of you messes up, he blames your entire group. And now you know what it feels like to be a minority.”
Finally, the emcee got serious, explaining how the White House Correspondents’ Dinner isn’t just a bizarre orgy of media, celebrity, and glamour, but an event that both awards scholarships to aspiring journalists and sorta celebrates the First Amendment. After all, there is something a bit reassuring—and distinctly American—about an event that allows a private citizen to unload on the POTUS on national television.
“This event is about celebrating the First Amendment and free speech. Free speech is the foundation of an open and liberal democracy, from college campuses to the White House. Only in America can a first generation Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president: the orange man behind the Muslim ban. And it’s a sign to the rest of the world, it’s this amazing tradition that shows the entire world that even the president is not beyond the reach of the First Amendment,” said Minhaj.
“But the president didn’t show up: because Donald Trump does not care about free speech,” he continued. “The man who tweets anything that enters his head refuses to acknowledge the amendment that allows him to do it. It’s 11 p.m. right now. In four hours, Donald Trump will be tweeting about how bad Nicki Minaj bombed at this dinner—and he’ll be doing it completely sober. And that’s his right. And I’m proud that all of us are here tonight to defend that right, even if the man in the White House never would.”