11 White House Correspondents’ Dinner Jokes That Caused A Stir

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The annual White House Correspondents' Dinner will be held on Saturday, and for the first time in 15 years, the event won't be headlined by a comedian. Although many have assumed that this decision was a reaction to Michelle Wolf's controversial roast of the Trump administration at the last dinner, 2018 certainly wasn't the only time White House Correspondents' Dinner jokes caused a stir in Washington.

Inviting a comedian to josh the president and the media is a time-honored tradition at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, dating back to Bob Hope's appearance at the 1944 event. Past comics who've yukked it up at the event include Jay Leno, Sinbad, Richard Pryor, Cedric the Entertainer, George Carlin, and Wanda Sykes. Often, presidents themselves tell jokes at the end of the evening as well, although Donald Trump, breaking with tradition, hasn't attended a single White House Correspondents' Dinner since he was elected president.

This year, instead of a comedian, the White House Correspondents' Association has invited historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow to headline the dinner. He's authored biographies on John D. Rockefeller, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Ulysses S. Grant. According to the New York Times, he'll give a speech about the First Amendment. Many speculated that this decision was a response to Wolf's controversial 2018 speech. However, that wasn't the first time a speaker's edgier jokes ruffled feathers at the dinner.

Stephen Colbert On George W. Bush

I've never been a fan of books. I don't trust them. They're all fact, no heart. I mean, they're elitist, telling us what is or isn't true or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was built in 1914? If I want to say it was built in 1941, that's my right as an American! I'm with the President. Let history decide what did or did not happen. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will.

Colbert's jokes at the 2006 dinner may seem innocuous, but they were highly contentious at the time. Conservatives were outraged at Colbert's satirical criticisms of incumbent President George W. Bush, and according to US News and World Report, several of Bush's aides walked out in protest. But the speech immediately went viral in liberal circles, with many praising it as a pitch-perfect criticism of the Bush administration. The Washington Post recently declared Colbert's monologue "most controversial Correspondents’ Dinner speech ever."

Wanda Sykes On Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh said he hopes this administration fails. You know, so you're saying, I hope America fails. You're, like, I don't care about people losing their homes or jobs or our soldiers in Iraq. He just wants the country to fail. To me, that's treason. He's not saying anything different than what Osama bin Laden is saying. You know, you might want to look into this, sir, because I think maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was so strung out on Oxycontin, he missed his flight...I hope the country fails? I hope his kidneys fail, how about that?

Many conservatives were furious at Sykes for jokingly wishing death upon Limbaugh and comparing him to a terrorist. Speaking on Fox News, former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove denounced the "nasty, vicious, mean, ugly comments," while Pat Buchanan said on MSNBC that Sykes' joke "was really over the top." Ultimately, the White House actually distanced itself from Sykes' joke.

Jay Leno's Recycled Jokes

If you took all the money Republicans spent trying to stop health care, and all the money Democrats have spent trying to get health care, you know somethin’? We could have had health care!

Jay Leno's 2010 routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner was widely perceived as a flop. Business Insider called it "lame" and "cringy," and many critics felt that the president's speech was funnier than Leno's.

But Leno's monologue was controversial for a different reason: He recycled the jokes. As Politico noted at the time, several of Leno's gags were directly lifted from monologues he'd recently given on The Tonight Show and The Jay Leno Show. According to The Hill, Leno's 2010 speech was the least-watched White House Correspondents' speech on YouTube as of May 2018.

Seth Meyers On Donald Trump's Race Relations

Donald Trump said recently he has a great relationship with the blacks, but unless the blacks are a family of white people, I bet he is mistaken.

Although Meyers didn't mention it, this may have been a reference to the fact that Trump and his father were sued by the Justice Department for allegedly refusing to rent out rooms to black applicants. The Trumps eventually signed a consent decree to end the lawsuit, in which they agreed to allow black people to rent their rooms but admitted no fault. Trump was in the room when Meyers told this joke, and he did not look happy about it.

Barack Obama On His Birth Certificate

I know that he’s taken some flack lately, but no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to the issues that matter, like did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?

This joke, and a few more that Obama told at Trump's expense, raised eyebrows primarily because Trump was in the room at the time — and in footage of the event, he did not look the slightest bit pleased.

Barack Obama On John Boehner

These days, the House Republicans actually give [then-Speaker of the House] John Boehner a harder time than they give me. Which means orange really is the new black.

This was a jab at Boehner's complexion, which the former speaker denies is the result of tanning beds.

Joel McHale On Chris Christie

I know it's been a long night, but I promise tonight will be amusing and over quickly — just like Chris Christie's presidential bid. I got a lot of these tonight, so buckle up, Governor Christie. Excuse me — extender buckle up.

This was an obvious knock on Christie's weight, leading to Hale being called out for body-shaming. Take Part's Liz Dwyer called it "the kind of joke that would be flagged at a school anti-bullying assembly as inappropriate," and rejected the notion that it's okay to tease someone for their weight just because "that person is a politician with whom we don’t see eye to eye."

Larry Wilmore on MSNBC

MSNBC here tonight. It now stands for 'Missing a Significant Number of Black Correspondents.' I heard they put Chris Hayes on probation because they thought he was related to Isaac Hayes. That is wrong. MSNBC got rid of so many black people, I thought Boko Haram was running that network.

Although this joke was praised by some, others found it insensitive. According to the BBC, Boko Haram launched around 127 terrorist attacks across four countries in 2016, the year Wilmore made this joke, killing over 900 people in the process. Writing at Ventures Africa, Hadassah Egbedi argued that "there is absolutely nothing funny about the ongoing carnage in north eastern Nigeria," and that "making light of such issues is an act of utter disregard for the thousands of lives lost."

Michelle Wolf On Sarah Huckabee Sanders

I actually really like Sarah [Huckabee Sanders]. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.

This may well be the most controversial joke in the history of the White House Correspondents' Dinner, judged by the force of the reaction to it. Many Republicans interpreted it as a knock on Sanders' appearance and were furious. Sanders' predecessor Sean Spicer told the Guardian that the joke was "absolutely disgusting," Trump called Wolf "filthy" on Twitter, Fox News correspondent Ed Henry demanded an apology to Sanders from the WHCA, and Sanders herself cited the joke as evidence that Wolf is an unhappy person.

Wolf, however, staunchly denied the suggestion that this joke was a knock on Sanders' appearance. On Twitter, she accused her critics of "making this about Sarah’s looks," explaining on her talk show that the joke was actually "about her ugly personality." Despite many calls to do so, Wolf refused to apologize.

Michelle Wolf On Ivanka Trump

There’s also, of course, Ivanka. She was supposed to be an advocate for women, but it turns out she’s about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons. She’s done nothing to satisfy women. So, I guess like father, like daughter.

When this gag elicited more groans than laughter from those in the room, Wolf quipped, "Oh, you don't think he's good in bed, come on!"

Michelle Wolf On Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell isn’t here tonight. He had a prior engagement. He’s finally getting his neck circumcised.

Although this joke was largely overshadowed by Wolf's jab at Sanders, some journalists accused her of body-shaming the Senate majority leader.

By contrast, this year's speech by Chernow is all but certain to be devoid of controversy — at least the kind of controversy that erupted after the aforementioned comedians' speeches.