The White House Correspondents’ Association announced Monday that Kenan Thompson will host its annual dinner on April 25, with former headliner Hasan Minhaj joining him as a featured entertainer.
The announcement breaks with recent history, as only one celebrity generally headlines the event – and they are referred to as a featured entertainer, like Minhaj is this year, and not as the host. WHCA President Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent for ABC News, told The Washington Post that the organization will be “re-engineering” the dinner this year.
“Kenan is one of the most beloved comedians in America, and one of the funniest comedians in America,” Karl said. “Hasan is somebody who has done real breakthrough comedy with his show, ‘Patriot Act.’ I think the combination of these two will really make for a great dinner.”
Thompson is the latest in a long line of “Saturday Night Live” stars to perform at the event; his current castmate Cecily Strong was the comedic relief five years ago, and former castmate Seth Meyers took the reins a few years before. President Donald Trump did not attend the dinner when Minhaj gave a speech in 2017, making him the first president to skip the event since 1981, when Ronald Reagan was recovering from an assassination attempt.
Karl said Thompson will be “able to bring more to the dinner than simply doing stand-up,” taking part in multimedia elements that have yet to be announced. Minhaj’s performance will also utilize screens behind the stage, mimicking the style of his political Netflix series: “He’ll be able to do kind of what he does with ‘Patriot Act’ and do a deep dive on a subject,” Karl added.
Enlisting professional comedians to anchor the night marks a return to tradition, however, as the WHCA took a left turn last year by inviting historian Ron Chernow instead. The event shed its glitzy skin and, as The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported, “looked more like a fancy journalism-industry dinner … than the self-indulgent, Hollywood-on-the-Potomac glamfest of yore.” Chernow’s remarks, while taking digs at the president, remained quite tame – a clear effort on the organization’s part to quell any anxieties sparked by the previous dinner’s entertainer, former “Daily Show” correspondent Michelle Wolf.
Wolf’s edgy routine proved controversial, largely over her joke that former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders “burns facts and then … uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.” She later doubled down, likening the spokeswoman to an “Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women.” Trump hasn’t attended any of the annual dinners since taking office, but he characteristically tweeted his review that year: “the so-called comedian really ‘bombed.'”
Some journalists were also critical of Wolf, who joked that the news media must “secretly love” Trump because they profit off news about him. Then-WHCA president Margaret Talev issued a statement saying she had heard “dismay” from others in the organization over the program, which was “meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people.”
“Unfortunately the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission,” Talev continued. Talev’s successor, SiriusXM chief Washington correspondent Olivier Knox, said the next year that he chose Chernow because he “felt that the dinner needed a reset.”
But comedians like Meyers, Wolf’s former boss on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” defended her: “Few people go to DC and accomplish what they set out to do while staying true to themselves,” he tweeted in response to the uproar. Wolf told NPR’s Terry Gross that “if you’ve seen any of my comedy, you know that … I don’t pull punches. I’m not afraid to talk about things.”
Thompson, “SNL’s” longest-tenured cast member, is known for his congeniality. But he doesn’t shy away from touchy topics, either. At the New Yorker Festival last year, Thompson touched on the high-profile firing of a newly announced SNL cast member over his past use of offensive language by acknowledging that it can be difficult to strike the right tone “during these woke times.” During his routine at the first dinner of the Trump administration, Minhaj commented on how difficult of a gig it can be.
“Don Rickles died just so you wouldn’t ask him to do this gig, all right?” Minhaj said. “RIP to Don Rickles, the only Donald with skin thick enough to take a joke like that.”
Karl said in a statement Monday that he was “thrilled” to have Thompson and Minhaj perform.
“This is a nonpartisan event,” he added to The Post, “but it’s one where we can have fun and we can make fun of ourselves, and also the people we cover.”