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Comedian's Controversial Performance At D.C. Gala Prompts Renewed Criticism


Even in the supposedly freewheeling times, comedy and comedians still occasionally make news, and we have a couple of stories about that. And we'll start with last night's White House Correspondents' Dinner, where comedian Michelle Wolf delivered a performance that took aim at the president, many of his aides and, of course, her hosts, the media.


MICHELLE WOLF: You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him.

MARTIN: Here's NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik now to talk about the dinner and why some people are apparently upset. David. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Great to join you.

MARTIN: So, David, lots of comedians have been criticized for their performances at this dinner and other dinners over the years. Was there something different about this one?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think a lot of people focused on Michelle Wolf's comments particularly about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who, in the absence of the president in some ways, was one of the leading figures and representatives of the Trump administration who came. Last year, you may recall, all the staffers boycotted in honor of the president, declaring that the whole thing was an affront to him. This time, he encouraged them to go. She was there. And some of the barbs were quite pointed and quite personal. So I think a lot of conservatives and Trump fans looked at that and said, oh, this is beyond the pale.

MARTIN: Here's an example of one of the jokes that apparently did not sit well. Here it is.


WOLF: And I'm never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders. You know, is it Sarah Sanders? Is it Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Is it Cousin Huckabee? Is it Auntie Huckabee Sanders? Like, what's Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know, Aunt Coulter.

MARTIN: Well, so you can hear some of the audience reaction in the background. As it has to be said, that is a very large dinner. There are thousands of people in that room. So what is the argument about? What exactly was beyond the pale?

FOLKENFLIK: The argument is that Michelle Wolf is using Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a woman, and taking her down on the basis, in some ways, of her gender and the role that she plays in a way that wouldn't be done to a man. You know, the accusation is that Michelle Wolf is behaving like a political comedian in a comedy room but instead, you know, in our living rooms because this is a televised thing.

And in some ways, the tension inherent every year is that the White House Correspondents' Association wants this to be a lively and sort of, in quotes, "outrageous" event so that people pay attention and so that it's a great gala and they can get, you know, celebrity guests. And they can raise money for their scholarships and hail the First Amendment and the hard work that people do. But in so doing, they often attract people who are genuinely outrageous and genuinely make pointed barbs, not barbs that are carefully sanded on the edges.

You know, I remember when Don Imus pointed barbs at then-President Clinton. I was there when President George W. Bush was satirized. I wasn't there when Stephen Colbert did his infamous and quite wonderful approach in 2006. I watched it on TV. But that is the one that I thought was most effective. And surprisingly, that's the one that people in the room took most affront to.

MARTIN: Well, the elephant in the room here though, David, is that the president has his own record of making vulgar comments and personally attacking people in public venues that are also televised and which his supporters have heartily defended. For example, a conservative commentator, Ana Navarro, posted a picture on Twitter of a couple with a Trump T-shirt with a vulgarity saying - basically dismissing your feelings. Basically, your feelings are not of interest. And there's a vulgarity that we don't use. So the question then becomes is what is the standard here?

FOLKENFLIK: I mean, look. I would call it an irony, but it's an abject hypocrisy if you think about what the president has said about his female critics, whether, you know, former Secretary of State Clinton, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, many other women - Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC, you name it. The things that the president has said have been far more personalized, far more vulgar, far more hostile, in some ways just, you know, definitionally (ph) sexist. There's just a deep disingenuousness about the degree to which people decide to take offense at this given the nature of the discourse we've had in the last several years, much of it from the mouth of the president himself.

MARTIN: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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