Larry Wilmore didn't "bomb": His Washington performance was precisely what comedy should be — cutting elites down to size

Wilmore gave us exactly what we needed at the White House Correspondents' dinner by tearing down the D.C. bigwigs

By Ben Norton
Published May 2, 2016 7:27PM (EDT)
Larry Wilmore speaks at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, April 30, 2016.   (AP/Susan Walsh)
Larry Wilmore speaks at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, April 30, 2016. (AP/Susan Walsh)

"Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable," goes a popular saying.

The same could be said of comedy. The best comics cut their teeth blasting the establishment, pillorying elites, satirizing the social order — from George Carlin to Dick Gregory, Bill Hicks to Margaret Cho.

Larry Wilmore did just this on Saturday night. As the featured comedian for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, he used his enormous platform to stir things up.

Wilmore attacked practically every leading political and media elite. Each joke in his performance was another notch in the list of powerful people to take down, from President Obama to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders, Wolf Blitzer to Don Lemon.

The media response to his routine was predictably antagonistic. CNN, which the comedian lambasted, reported "Larry Wilmore gets groans and grimaces at White House Correspondents gala."

Slate wrote that "Larry Wilmore got more groans than laughs at the White House Correspondents' dinner," and insisted the comedian "really flopped." The Washington Post similarly asked whether Wilmore "bombed" and "flopped."

When comedians actually criticize people in power, elites insist they fail to be funny. Average people, however, might say they are merely doing their job, performing comedy as it should be done: comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.

From a political perspective, Wilmore did a great service in his routine. He voiced much-needed criticism with the help of lighthearted comedy.

Herein lies the political power of jokes — they can varnish unappetizing truths and make them easier to swallow. Through comedy, Wilmore was able to jettison harsh critiques at elites that desperately need to hear them, and right in front of their very faces.

Wilmore's provocative, and subversive, performance can be seen below in full, courtesy of C-SPAN:

From the beginning of his routine, Wilmore set a dissentious political tone. He boldly opened the set criticizing the president, taking a jab at Obama for "not closing Guantánamo," breaking a promise he has maintained since his 2008 presidential campaign.

Both basketball player Steph Curry and President Obama "like raining down bombs on people from long distances," Wilmore added, indirectly referencing the fact that, in 2015 alone, the Obama administration dropped at least 23,144 bombs on six Muslim-majority countries, most of which the U.S. has not officially declared war in.

"I gotta be careful picking on you, though, Mr. President," he said later. "Couple years ago during this dinner, you were like killing Osama bin Laden. Remember that? Who you killing tonight?"

Wilmore followed up with a swipe at CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. "Speaking of drones, how is Wolf Blitzer still on television?" Wilmore asked.

He later attacked CNN outright. "I’ve been watching CNN a long time," Wilmore said. "Used to watch it back when it was a news network."

"I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t get enough of that CNN countdown clock. Now we can see exactly when they hit zero in the ratings."

Next on his list were Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Then failed GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, print journalism and white people.

Joke after joke was an attack on the establishment.

"I’m impressed with the people in this room. There are so many rich, powerful people in this room," Wilmore said.

"You know, it’s nice to finally match the names to the faces in the Panama Papers. It’s very nice," he added, referring to the cache of leaked documents that expose how political and economic elites from around the planet are stashing their money in secretive tax havens.

Other media juggernauts were subsequently in scope. Wilmore blasted Fox News and MSNBC alike for racism.

MSNBC "actually now stands for 'Missing a Significant Number of Black Correspondents,'" he joked. "MSNBC got rid of so many black people I thought Boko Haram was running that network."

"You know, I should say some of America’s finest black journalists are here tonight. Don Lemon’s here, too. Hey, Don, how’s it going? Alleged journalist Don Lemon, everybody," Wilmore derisively added, in a swipe at the resident CNN hack, who returned the sentiment with a poignant raised middle finger.

Next was the Rev. Al Sharpton, then Democratic presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Sanders "recently had a hernia operation. His doctors say it’s his own fault for trying to lift the hopes of the disenfranchised. You gotta stretch before you do that, Senator," Wilmore joked.

"I have to give you credit though, Bernie, you are trying hard to get the black vote. I think it’s great. Bernie’s been hanging around with rapper Killer Mike," he added. "Or as Hillary Clinton calls him, Super Predator Mike."

He continued with the criticisms of Clinton: "Bernie, you got in trouble for saying Hillary was unqualified? Hillary, she is extremely qualified. In fact, when you factor in all of her policy flip-flops, she is at least several of the most qualified candidates ever to run for president. You know I’m not wrong."

A political comedy routine would not be complete without a denunciation of Donald Trump. The Republican presidential front-runner and his racist, xenophobic campaign were spared no mercy.

"Donald Trump looks like the rich dad in every episode of 'Law & Order' where the frat kid accidentally strangles a hooker," Wilmore joked. "Or as they say here at the Washington Hilton, Tuesdays."

"Everybody hates Ted Cruz," he continued, going after the GOP runner-up. Wilmore played off of the internet joke that Cruz is secretly the Zodiac Killer.

"Recently, Ted Cruz got a string of wins and endorsements, and then everybody remembered who Ted Cruz is: the Zodiac Killer," he joked.

Wilmore concluded his performance with a reflection on Obama's legacy as the first black presidents — but he still managed to fit in a few more pointed jabs.

"I just got a note from the president saying that if you want another drink, you should order it now because the bar will be closing down. Of course, he said the same thing about Guantánamo, so you have at least another eight years," Wilmore joked.

"Groans are good. Groans are good," Wilmore said during his performance. And he's right: groans are good, when it is elites groaning about the jokes made at their expense.

This is how comedy should always be. We should thank Wilmore for his gutsy routine.

Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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