Consider, if you will, the year 2011. Anne Hathaway and James Franco presided over an Oscars ceremony that everyone was sure couldn’t get any stranger; the U.S. Senate deviated from the usual 10-year term limit to extend the tenure of then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, and Donald Trump, red tie and all, sat and smiled as a procession of entertainers (including, perplexingly, “Jersey Shore’s” Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino) insulted him for some 90 minutes on “The Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump.”
Time often has a way of making the past seem ridiculous and — in some cases — eerily prescient, which is surely part of the reason the network pulled the program from its vaults for rebroadcast this week on Thursday, Friday and Sunday nights (11 p.m. ET/PT). But another justification surely came with this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a typically chummy, light-hearted affair where a sitting president presides over a meal with journalists while a comic makes jokes at their expense.
Except this year, just like last year, Trump has elected not to attend the event, where rising star and “Daily Show” alumna Michelle Wolf will roast him from afar this Saturday night (airing on C-SPAN at 9:30 p.m. ET).
What a difference seven years make. Whether it was age, power or repeated exposure to ridicule that wore Trump’s skin down, at one point the future president appeared on some level to be in on the joke — or at least willing to pretend to be so in the name of furthering his wealth, his fame or, as referenced numerous times during “The Roast,” his political ambitions.
The Trumpian touchstones featured in the opening credits of “The Roast” (whose conceit follows a day-in-the-life of Trump from his point of view, though he clearly had no involvement in their creation) are immediately familiar and jarring: There’s the branded helicopter, the brief but pointed glance from a young blonde who shares his limo ride to Trump Tower, where deals are struck and campaign posters approved. As he leaves, he gets a kiss from a beauty queen.
Once the show begins, he enters on a golden golf cart flanked by sash-wearing models amid a shower of cash, giving every impression of being not just on board with the joke but reveling in it.
If there has been one constant in Trump’s public life it’s his fondness for celebrity (witness how quickly he has embraced Kanye West’s praise on social media this week). And while his 2011 roast didn’t entirely draw from the comic A-list — in addition to Sorrentino, there’s the network ringer Jeffrey Ross, Snoop Dogg, Lisa Lampanelli and future producer of the Trump-sympathizing “Roseanne” revival, Whitney Cummings along with, puzzlingly, Marlee Matlin and Larry King — a spotlight is a spotlight, and Trump weathers every insult. At one point, he even briefly puckers his face into a play on the then-common impression of him on “SNL” after it’s referenced.
It’s a far cry from the behavior of Trump the President, who prefers to launch his scorched earth salvos from the relative safety of Twitter and keeps his TV appearances primarily confined to the friendly, open-ended exchanges on “Fox & Friends.”
There are the jokes about his hair, his wealth and his fondness for young women, (which after the “Access Hollywood” tape and the Stormy Daniels news now takes on a darker cast). But one of the roast’s most favored topics is his turn toward politics, which at that point was just beginning.
“It’s pronounced ‘I am [expletive] delusional,’” host Seth MacFarlane advises him, “Not ‘I am running for president.’” And, oh, how they laughed.
“Donald says he wants to run for president and move on into the White House,” Snoop tells him during his sharply timed turn at the mic. “Why not? It wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a black family out of their home.” The crowd ohhs, the camera finds an amused Ivanka covering her face, and all along, Trump just smiles. “Nice going, great job,” Trump tells Snoop with a pat on the back after his set is through.
And because it’s all sport, the good cheer feels mutual. “Nice to meet you, it’s a pleasure!” Cummings genially says before her turn, and every performer says something kind after their round of insults. Seven years later, Snoop has been among Trump’s many targets on Twitter, where last year he called the hip-hop star’s career “failing” after he released a Trump-skewering music video.
It’s not just a question of whether Trump would now share a stage with these comics but whether the feeling would be mutual amid a consistently pugnacious presidency.
Though it seems debatable whether Trump actually enjoyed himself during the roast (Cummings appeared on King’s show in 2017 to discuss that very thing), he undoubtedly enjoyed its conclusion, when, according to tradition, the target gets the last word. He throws some insults of his own, complete with the familiar off-script asides, which generate the usual uproarious stage laughter in return. He even kills the crowd with a profane joke about his hair, which he begrudgingly accepts with a repeated, “OK, very funny.”
But as the show closes, Trump the campaigner arrives, seemingly from the future. Teasing a run that never materialized in 2012, he promises the crowd, “You will have the great pleasure of voting for the man that will easily go down as the greatest president in the history of the United States: Me.”
Time will tell who has the last laugh on that one.
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