Inside the WHCA Dinner: Standing Ovations for President Obama’s Final Comic Gig

White House Correspondents Dinner Inside
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

President Obama received standing ovations for his final White House Correspondents Assn. monologue that ended with him dropping his microphone and declaring “Obama out.”

When featured entertainer Larry Wilmore ended his routine by using the “N” word, it drew reactions of, “Did he just say that?”

Inside the cavern-like ballroom of the Washington Hilton, the crowd response can be much different than that on the screen or social media.

There’s a big shift in the mood of the roughly 2,800 people in the audience, from rapt attention to the commander-in-chief to a tinge of antsiness as the professional comic follows him to the stage. It’s why the WHCA dinner is one of the more high profile assignments for entertainers — and, following the president, one of the toughest.

As Wilmore spoke, some in the crowd started to leave, perhaps to be first in what is destined to be a marathon valet line. Among them was Aretha Franklin.

But there also is the standard that Obama seems to have set for presidential standup.

His material on Saturday may not have matched some of his previous dinners, like his 2011 takedown of Donald Trump, who was in attendance that year, but Obama on Saturday still drew some of the loudest laughs in the room for quips, including those about an upcoming Goldman Sachs payday and getting high in college. Also especially well received was the surprise appearance of John Boehner in a video segment.

Obama’s biting humor about CNN and Wilmore’s swipe at Don Lemon drew “oohs” from the crowd — as did other zingers at journalism, given the presence of the figures in the room. Wilmore’s extended bit about Ted Cruz being the Zodiac killer drew some puzzlement, but he got good laughs for a quip about Donald Trump and “Morning Joe” and Bill Cosby.

Noting his meeting with Kendall Jenner before the event, Obama said, “I am not sure what she does. But I am told my Twitter mentions will go through the roof.”

At her table, where she was joined by other Hollywood figures such as Miles Teller, Jenner seemed pleased with the shoutout — and as the president went on with his quips, she started texting. No tweets, as wifi and cell service in the basement ballroom was hopeless.

The room is a tight fit, but save for those on the dais, everyone gets the same amount of space. That means that Will and Jada Pinkett, Whoopi Goldberg, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman and even Vice President Joseph Biden crunched into their seats.

Bernie Sanders posed for selfie after selfie — or his wife Jane offered to take them for the many who sought their snapshot with the presidential contender. “We were here once about four years ago,” Jane Sanders said, noting that they otherwise haven’t been a big part of the social scene.

At times the challenge for WHCA president Carol Lee was to get the attention of the crowd, which was assisted in its zest to mingle and network by the dinner program, identifying each dinner guest in alphabetical order and the number of the table where they were sitting. (There were 261 tables in all). Secretary of State John Kerry was among those who sought out old friends among the crowd.

Veterans of the dinner say it has changed significantly, even under Obama, in its sheer size and scope. Many more people, lacking dinner tickets, come to the hotel to watch or attend the media pre-parties. That has made the pre-dinner scene an exercise in crowd control. Where once guests could wander from cocktail reception to cocktail reception, in recent years there has been more attention paid to security and RSVPs.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) got stopped before he went down a hall leading to the CBS News/Atlantic Media and other events, while a long line of formal attired guests waited just to get on an escalator from one floor to another. Security personnel were concerned of a breakdown.

A telling sign of just how much the event has grown came during the dinner, when all of the White House correspondents were asked to stand up. Maybe 100 did, and it was readily apparent what a small fraction of the room it was. Obama even quipped about the presence of “journalists” like Rachel McAdams — who played one in “Spotlight.”

After Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter released in January after spending 18 months in Iranian custody, took the stage, he quipped, “It’s a very intimidating room, but I can say, it beats solitary confinement.”

He did get a standing ovation.