Relations between the White House and the press corps that covers it are arguably at an all-time low under the Trump administration, but Samantha Bee intends to offer a solution. She will host a gala dinner in Washington, D.C. that could serve as an alternative to the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
Bee and producers from her TBS satirical-comedy program, “Full Frontal,” will take over Washington’s Willard Hotel on April 29 at the same time the WHCA dinner is slated to take place, and invite journalists and celebrities to attend. During a conference call with reporters Monday, Bee said she expected the Time Warner-owned cable network to broadcast the event, but indicated details were still being worked out.
The idea originated after Election Day said Bee and Jo Miller, the show’s executive producer. Bee and others were trying to come up with something they thought would be fun. “We are trying to have some joy, trying to capture something for ourselves,” said Bee. “We never intended for this to take away from the other event,” she said.
With the Trump administration venting regularly about how the press treats it, there has been rising concern about whether the WHCA dinner might actually take place this year. In past years, the event has been criticized as one that renders the media too chummy with a subject of a good part of its coverage. A representative for the WHCA could not be reached for immediate comment.
At the same time, the event regularly generates headlines. Comedians including Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert have held forth in what is usually a very tough room. In 2016, Larry Wilmore, then host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show,” raised eyebrows with a monologue that poked fun at CNN correspondents Wolf Blitzer and Don Lemon and made use of a racial epithet.
Bee’s move is novel, to be sure, but by making it, the comedienne is joining a number of late-night hosts who are expanding their role with creative outreach. With TV viewers growing ever more fragmented thanks to the rise of streaming video and mobile devices, hosts like Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers are devising new methods to stay relevant. Others have mounted similar efforts in the past. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in 2010 organized “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a Washington, D.C. event meant to spoof a Glenn Beck rally, that lured fans of both his “Daily Show” and Colbert’s “Colbert Report.”
The pressure to stand out has only grown since that time. In the last few years, late-night comedy has seen the rise of what might be called Johnny Carson’s grandchildren: a wave of successors to Jay Leno and David Letterman who must contend with smaller audiences and the relentless pressure to cultivate a growing legion of fans who watch the programs not when they are on TV, but through clips passed around on YouTube or other sites.
These days, the late-night hosts do things Steve Allen could only consider in a fever dream. Stephen Colbert has inserted new introduction segments into repeats, and his staff recently started a new Twitter feed purporting to be written by disaffected members of his program. Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” will make available the show’s signature segment, “A Closer Look,” on social media hours before a new episode that contains it debuts at 12:30 a.m. Jimmy Fallon has given the nod to having an amusement-park ride inspired by his “Tonight Show” launch at NBCUniversal-owned Universal Orlando.
These business aspects had no role in the decision to try to hold the event, Bee said. But producers will try to use the soiree to call attention to journalism, and may invite what Bee said were “unsung journalists” to take part, as well as “super fans” of the program. All proceeds for the gala, which is being called “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” will go to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Obviously, the press is under attack” under the Trump administration, said Bee.
Bee’s staff has tested several intriguing ideas since TBS launched the show last February. “Full Frontal” occasionally publishes humorous bits on Medium; passes around extra segments that never made it to air via social media; and occasionally offers previews of the pre-show process via Facebook Live.
The segment seems tailored to Bee, who offers a take-no-prisoners brand of humor and has not been shy about disagreeing with President Trump’s attitudes and policies. TBS recently renewed the program to run for a second season through 2017.
“We’re really doing this,” said Bee. “This is not a joke.”