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Was It Good, Bad Or Ugly? Takes On Larry Wilmore's Jokes At Correspondents' Dinner

Comedy Central's Larry Wilmore speaks at the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.
Susan Walsh
Comedy Central's Larry Wilmore speaks at the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.

"Welcome to Negro Night," is how Larry Wilmore, the host of this weekend's White House Correspondents' Association dinner, kicked off the night, adding, "Or as Fox News will report, 'Two thugs disrupt elegant dinner in D.C.' " The tepid reaction to that joke wouldn't warm up much over the next 30 minutes. News outlets are saying that the comedian " bombed" and " flopped," and some are chiding him for finishing out the routine by saying, "You did it, my n****" to the president.

But others say Wilmore's poor reception had more to do with the audience than the jokes, and that we may look back on his performance with greater appreciation.

Here's a sampling of takes from across the spectrum.

Jezebel's Aimee Lutkin described the event as "a roast presented to a crowd of people with no sense of humor" and speculated that Wilmore's racial jokes may not have landed in part because of the overwhelmingly white crowd. One Huffington Post headline invited viewers to "watch Larry Wilmore make everyone nervous," positing that as a good thing. And loads of commentators on Twitter praised Wilmore's routine, along these lines:

But Slate's Daniel Politi was less impressed. He says that Wilmore "never really found his rhythm" and that the crowd's reception "knocked him off his game a bit."

"Yes, it's never easy to follow the president. But boy did Larry Wilmore miss the mark on Saturday night at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. The vast majority of his jokes fell flat in a room that seemed to be groaning more often than smiling. Beyond a joke here and there, the whole monologue was really boring. A full 10 minutes could have easily been chopped from the whole thing and nothing would have changed."

Dustin Rowles at agreed that Wilmore wasn't helped by coming after President Obama, who as usual, crushed it:

"President Obama gave his last White House Correspondents' Dinner speech tonight, and he was amazing. ...

"As for Larry Wilmore? Ooof. It didn't help that he had to follow Obama, but Wilmore didn't do himself any real favors, either. The crowd was hard on him, and it was clear his confidence was shaken. There were a lot of groans, a lot of cringes, and at one point, even Don Lemon flipped him off. It didn't work. He didn't have the material to follow Obama, and weak material led to a bad response which led to an increasingly insecure performance. I like Larry Wilmore, and he did get off a few great jokes (including jokes about Guantanamo and drone strikes, at Obama's expense), but it wasn't a good overall speech (and the Ted Cruz/Zodiac Killer bit went on way too long)."

Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore thought the poor reception might have been a simple case of wrong place, wrong time:

"The host of The Nightly Show made most of his jokes at the media's expense, and in this room full of reporters, they probably sounded meaner than they were meant to. With no Donald Trump in the audience, it fell to Wolf Blitzer to maintain a humorless stone face when Wilmore mocked The Situation Room; responding to recent personnel changes, Wilmore joked that MSNBC stood for 'Missing a Significant Number of Black Correspondents'; later he suggested a countdown clock on CNN's screen was tracking the network's ratings as they fell to zero."

Lastly, over at the Washington Post, Callum Borchers agrees that Wilmore's routine didn't go over well but thinks it might ripen with age, comparing it to Stephen Colbert's 2006 performance:

"Colbert, like Wilmore, went for the jugular. The theme of his monologue was that journalists had been too soft in their coverage of President George W. Bush's foreign policy, behaving more like lapdogs than watchdogs as Bush led the United States into Middle East conflicts. And, like Wilmore, Colbert heard grumbling and even some booing as he delivered his punch lines. ...

"But in hindsight, few would disagree with the underlying critique of Colbert's satire. ... So, chin up, Larry Wilmore. A decade from now, the same journalists who bristled at your commentary on Saturday might look back and say, 'You know what? He kind of had a point.' "

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Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.
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