Eleven years ago, Stephen Colbert set an almost impossible bar for the headliner of the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner to follow, delivering a brutally funny and honest takedown of the George W. Bush presidency, directly to the man’s face. Nobody’s ever matched it, but tonight’s host, The Daily Show’s Hasan Minhaj, didn’t even have a chance, because President Donald Trump didn’t bother to show up and take his licks. (He was too busy hanging out in Pennsylvania, talking about how much he hates the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.) In his set, Minhaj claimed that he was asked not to roast the president and his administration in absentia—a request he rejected, in service of a wider point about free speech, and also about making fun of Donald Trump.
“Welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” Minhaj opened, before noting all the performers who turned his job down. “Don Rickles died so that you couldn’t ask him to do this gig,” Minhaj joked, before praising Rickles as “the only Donald” with a skin thick enough to take such a jab. Minhaj took shots at Trump’s Russia ties, his golfing habits, and especially his tweeting—expressing amazement at a grown man tweeting angrily at 3 a.m. while entirely cold sober. He similarly poked at Trump’s cabinet, who also refused to attend the event. “Jeff Sessions just said ‘No,’” Minhaj quipped. “Which is his second favorite N-word.” (Meanwhile, “Sean Spicer gives press briefings like someone is going through his browser history, while he watches.”)
If anything, though, Minhaj was even harsher on the media, especially cable news. He called out Fox for giving Bill O’Reilly a $25 million severance package, and categorized MSNBC as a bunch of soon-to-be conspiracy theorists. (“I had more MSNBC jokes, but I don’t want to ramble on, or they’ll give me a show on MSNBC.”) And he described CNN as a bunch of over-eager kids, too desperate to tell you about a story to actually tell the story. (Despite his obvious nerves, Minhaj seemed well-prepared to handle the various groans his jokes provoked, blaming Nate Silver’s faulty predictions for one flop, and commenting that he was just going to hire Kellyanne Conway to go on the news tomorrow to say he’d killed, regardless of the actual reaction.)
The set—which followed the usual host of awards, plus short speeches from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—turned the corner back to vaguely uplifting at the end, though, mimicking the various cries of “We are not the enemy” that punctuated the entire night. Minhaj emphasized that now was the time when the media had to be perfect in its execution of its duties. “When one of you messes up, he blames your entire group,” he claimed, before leaning into the microphone: “And now you know what it feels like to be a minority.” Pushing the metaphor further—and pointing out that, as minorities, they now had to live with singular bad apples like Geraldo Riviera being held up as representative of their whole group—Minhaj called for continued and enduring excellence from the reporters in attendance. He finished by thanking Woodward and Bernstein for inspiring the latest generation of journalists, and the absent Donald Trump for inspiring the next.