Is Washington ready for Wanda? That’s the question posed by Politico style reporter Patrick Gavin over the weekend and one that underscores the incredibly sensitive nature of selecting the “official entertainment” for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner each year.
When it was announced earlier this year that Sykes would be the headliner for the 2009 dinner, it seemed a non-controversial choice on the surface. While traditionally the actress/comedian has not been a politically active force by Hollywood standards, she was vocally opposed to California’s Proposition 8 and it’s fitting symbolism for President Obama’s first major Washington dinner.
But as the event draws nearer, expect the nerves to grow. There’s a thin line between edgy comedy at these events and that which borders on the offensive — either politically or in terms of taste.
If there’s a single instance in the recent history that encapsulates what the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has become in staid, old Washington, it would have to be the “Ozzy moment.” The year was 2002 and the unified spirit that enveloped Washington in the wake of the 9/11 attacks still lingered as the elite masses gathered at the Washington Hilton hotel for the annual dinner. President Bush was on hand, riding a wave of political popularity. Cabinet members like Colin Powell were also present, as well as the upper echelons of official Washington.
Comedian Drew Carey was the featured entertainment (after the president, of course), and the requisite celebrities were on hand as well – Harrison Ford, Christie Brinkley, etc. But it was heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne (invited by Fox News host Greta Van Susteren) everyone was clamoring to see. His MTV reality show “The Osbournes” had become a cultural phenomenon and the muttering poster boy of rock ‘n roll excess was more famous than he had ever been in his head-banging heyday. Even the president couldn’t resist the pull of America’s sudden and most unlikely celebrity. “The thing about Ozzy is he’s made a lot of big hit recordings,” Bush said as he gave the singer a shout-out during his remarks. “’Party With Animals,’ ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,’ ‘Face in Hell,’ ‘Black Skies’ and ‘Bloodbath in Paradise’ … Ozzy, mom loves your stuff.” Osbourne responded by standing on his chair, arms raised and shouting as the audience howled and applauded.