“For the past couple of months I was truly terrified, and then it’s like, ‘Well, now it’s public so I can’t back out,'” she told Variety. “But now that it’s closer I think I’m having less time to be scared because more and more time I have to be working on it.”
The room of roughly 2,600 people is full of journalists, media executives, celebrities and powerful D.C. figures — the majority of whom don’t shrink from expressing their opinions — and it is broadcast live on C-SPAN and cable news channels. The cavernous ballroom of the Washington Hilton has pretty poor acoustics. And as is tradition, she will be following the president, not coming on before him.
“He’s known as an amazingly funny guy,” she said. “He’s maybe our funniest president. You know, his timing is great. He had that moment at the State of the Union where he said [in a comeback to GOP detractors], ‘Well I should know because I won two of them.’ I’ve never said anything that cool on the spot. That’s one of the things you think of after like, ‘Oh, I should have said that.’ And so, it’s tough to follow that guy.'”
One of Obama’s writers, she said, has reached out to her and she met him. “Hopefully — they’ll send me their jokes, we’ll make sure we’re not wearing the same thing” — and they don’t repeat the same material. To prepare, she has been watching clips of past gigs, plans to consult with Seth Meyers (who was the featured entertainer in 2011) and has been working with his writer.
She said that it “felt like the right year” to do the dinner as President Obama also has Chicago-area roots. “It was really sort of like, ‘Well, it’s now or never,'” she says of taking the gig.
Strong, 31, grew up in Oak Park, Ill. Her father is a former journalist who is now in public relations, and her brother actually ran the confetti cannon at Barack Obama’s 2004 victory celebration when he won his Senate seat. Her family will be there, and get a chance to meet Obama. “I think that’ll be a fun little moment,” she said. She also plans to visit the White House the day before the dinner and, with her father and stepmother, visit Arlington Cemetery, where her grandparents are buried.
She has not been to the dinner before, but counts that year that Stephen Colbert entertained, 2006, as “the coolest thing I have ever seen done.” Colbert, in character, skewered President George W. Bush, who was sitting right next to him. “I loved that, and thought it was so powerful and just incredible,” she said. It also created some controversy — and then next year the WHCA selected a much less biting figure, Rich Little.
She also was a big fan of Meyers’ gig. “Seth can get away with being a little more biting because he’s such a friendly, fun guy,” Strong said.
Strong also will be one of only a handful of women who have performed comedy at the dinner — Paula Poundstone and Wanda Sykes among them — and she also is younger than most entertainers who’ve done the event.
“A lot of these people were so great, but I don’t think I will be like a lot of them,” she said. “It helps and hopefully doesn’t hurt too much that I’ll already be so different just being a 31-year-old woman up there.”
She also noted that both she and Meyers come from sketch and improv comedy backgrounds, not standup.
“I know I definitely want some great, hard jokes,” she said. “There are definitely certain issues I’d love to hit and spend a little more time on. I think I’m kind of a silly person, so I hope it’s a little more silly than truly biting, if that makes sense. Really, I just hope that some of it is funny to some people — that would be the goal. I want to break even. That is what I keep saying because all I keep hearing is how tough a room it is, so it would really feel like a win if I break even.”
She adds, “I don’t want to jinx anything. I’m a knocker-on-wood kind of person, so let’s just hope I don’t fall. I don’t want any of that to be the news.”