Joel McHale, who makes part of his living by making fun of the Kardashians, faces a much tougher challenge Saturday in lampooning the President and the Washington elite at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. As he told David Letterman this week, "These people may have made enough money and have enough power to never laugh again."
For McHale, the gig doesn't represent a chance to get laughs with President Obama feet away as much as an audition of sorts for an even bigger role. McHale's presidential moment comes amid the recent opening of two prime slots in late night comedy: Stephen Colbert is leaving "The Colbert Report" to replace Letterman on CBS' "Late Show," while Craig Ferguson is departing "The Late, Late Show."
The latest late night shakeup hadn't started to publicly unfurl when McHale was tapped in February to headline Saturday's dinner. But the timing could be good for the "Talk Soup" and "Community" star, who is ready to graduate to a new stage.
Not that we're rooting against "Community," the innovative TV cult comedy favorite that's survived five seasons of modest ratings amid hopes for at least one more run on NBC (the show's unofficial rallying cry is "Six seasons and a movie"). And "The Soup" wouldn't be the same without McHale's weekly skewering of reality TV junk on reality TV junk-filled E!.
Both of McHale's programs show off his versatility as a comic whose above-it-all snarky demeanor belies a persona, forged primarily on “Community,” as a leader of oddballs, giving him a kinship to self-styled outsiders.
That can make for a limited audience, and it's not unfathomable that after a decade on "The Soup," McHale might be looking to move on. The White House Correspondents' Association dinner appears to be a step in that direction: Recent past hosts at the annual Hollywood-meets-Washington gathering include late night comedy figures Ferguson, Jay Leno, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien.
McHale, both for tips and a cautionary tale, might want to most closely study Colbert’s daring turn in 2006. Colbert was just a few months into "The Colbert Report" when he used his still-fresh conservative blowhard character to deliver an in-person mocking of President George W. Bush ("I stand by this man, because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares," Colbert said).
The President wasn't pleased, and many found Colbert’s act disrespectful (the Correspondents’ Association responded by booking the generally inoffensive Rich Little the next year). But the truthiness of the matter is that the performance gained Colbert exposure beyond Comedy Central and didn't hurt him in the long run.
McHale, while quick-witted, is largely untested as a political comic. His stock in trade rests in pointing out the absurdity around him, while occasionally acknowledging the absurdity of his own role (“I’m on the E! network – we’ve got the Kardashians and the rich kids of Hollywood,” he told Letterman).
As McHale gets ready to go from "The Soup" to the frying pan, check out an excerpt of his interview with Letterman:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.