On the controversy meter, Wanda Sykes’ alternately hilarious and cringe-inducing performance at the White House Correspondents Association dinner is likely to be measured against past presidential roast performances by Don Imus and Stephen Colbert.
But it’s not a fair comparison – to Imus and Colbert, who each comically carpet bombed a sitting president seated just feet away.
“Remember the Astroturf in the pickup” truck? Imus asked Bill Clinton at the Radio and TV Correspondents Association dinner in 1996. More recently, Colbert, in faux-conservative character, mocked George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ event (“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.”)
Sykes, on the other hand, lobbed funny, but harmless comic softballs at President Obama. Her crack about the press’ penchant for running shirtless photos of the buff President was about as racy as it got ("I don't need to see your nipples," she told Obama. "There was never a nipple portrait of Lincoln.")
The tart-tongued comedian, known for her stints on “The Chris Rock Show” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” saved her usual irreverent fire for the right. She got in shots at Dick Cheney (suggesting her kids would be better off getting in a car with a stranger than with that “scary man”) and Sarah Palin, whom she said pulled out of the dinner at the last minute ("Somebody should tell her that's not really how you practice abstinence”).
But Sykes did near the impossible when she poll vaulted over the line: She made an audience of press, pols and celebrities almost feel sorry for Rush Limbaugh.
Sykes likened Limbaugh’s disgraceful comments about wanting Obama to fail, to treason – and compared the conservative radio host to Osama bin Laden.
“I think maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was just strung out on OxyContin and missed his flight,” she said, drawing groans.
"Too much?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
But that didn’t stop her from adding: “I hope his kidneys fail, how about that?”
The White House Press Correspondents Association, to be sure, knew what it was getting into when it enlisted Sykes, just as when it tapped Colbert three years ago, so any Monday-morning tongue clucking would be disingenuous.
But if Sykes planned to go for broke, no one should have been spared – including the President, who did a pretty good job of poking fun at himself. Instead, we got a Sykes performance that quickly swung, left-to-right, from kid gloves to brass knuckles.
So whatever you think of her act Saturday night, don’t compare Sykes to Imus or Colbert. They took on the commander-in-chief, while she took an easier way out.
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 the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.