Roy Wood Jr. wanted to accomplish two things during his White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech Saturday night: laughs and reparations, as he told NPR earlier this week. He got half his wish.
On Saturday evening, Wood took some mainly innocuous shots at Joe Biden, largely targeting his age (“When the retirement age went up two years to 64 [in France] they rioted because they didn’t want to work till 64. Meanwhile in America, we have an 80-year-old man begging us for four more years of work.”) But he really rode roughshod over several newsmakers who weren’t in the room at the Washington Hilton Hotel to smile awkwardly as the camera panned to capture their discomfort.
Wood kicked off his roast by alerting Biden, who had just vacated the podium, that he seemed to have left a handful of confidential documents behind. Then The Daily Show correspondent felt it was only fair to introduce himself to whoever was watching, because “Half this room thinks I’m Kenan Thompson, the other half thinks I’m Louis Armstong,” Wood surmised, “President Biden thinks I’m the daddy on Family Matters.”
Throughout his nearly 30-minute address, Wood targeted a wide range of people and topics, and deftly managed to thread what was essentially a searing roast of the biggest political headlines at the moment with a personal and deeply felt reverence to authentic journalism.
“An often overlooked purpose of tonight’s dinner is to award scholarships to students who have shown great achievements in journalism,” Wood said. “These brave young souls are the future of the industry, and I’d like to stop right now and congratulate tonight’s top scholarship recipient: Arizona State senior George Santos.” Sadly, the volleyball champ/congressman from New York was not in attendance.
Wood spoke about how it’s “a tumultuous time in the media,” citing NPR, Axios, BuzzFeed News, and several other outlets that have seen large rounds of layoffs. But also noted that scandals have been a major source of unemployment for some too, including “The Untouchable Tucker Carlson”
“But to Tucker’s staff, I want you to know that I know what you’re feeling,” said Wood. “I work at The Daily Show. So I, too, have been blindsided by the sudden departure of the host of a fake news program.” The comedian addressed Biden specifically when he suggested that having Carlson back on the air would be a good thing for the president, “because right now there’s millions of Americans that don’t even know why they hate you.”
He then chastised CNN for firing Don Lemon before he had a chance to rack up several more scandals, suggesting that scandals are what a news network should be looking for in their on-air personalities. “Yes, Don Lemon was a diva and he said a couple of women are raggedy in the face. But that’s a promotion at Fox News,” said Wood.
For a masterclass in How to Create a Scandal, Wood suggested we all look to Donald Trump: “Keeping up with Donald Trump scandals is like watching Star Wars movies,” he said of the former president. “You gotta watch the third one to understand the first one. Then you can’t miss the second one, because it’s got Easter eggs for the fifth one. Donald Trump is the only politician whose scandals got spin-offs on Disney+.”
Yet Wood also took the time to do what so few entertainers have done before him by truly celebrating the journalists who break the stories that change our world. Wood’s father, Roy Wood Sr., was a pioneering Black radio journalist who co-founded the National Black Network, America’s first Black-owned national radio network that created content for Black Americans.
“The industry that covers all of these scandals, isn’t immune to them,” Wood said, taking on a more serious tone. “The issue with good media is that most people can’t afford that. All the essential, fair and nuanced reporting is stuck behind a paywall. People can’t afford rent, people can’t afford food—not healthy food. They can’t afford an education. They damn sure can’t afford to pay for the truth.”
“Say what you want about a conspiracy theory, but at least it’s affordable,” Wood continued. “Unless you’re Alex Jones—then it costs you about $900 million.”
But Wood’s plea was heartfelt: “People can’t afford the truth, but you all can’t afford to go find the truth for free. The work you do as journalists is important, essential, and dangerous… Good journalism costs, that’s the truth of the matter.”
Wood paid tribute to Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal journalist who is currently jailed in Russia on espionage charges because of his reporting. Gershkovich’s imprisonment, and the importance of the First Amendment, were sentiments that Biden echoed during his own time at the podium, when he said that today’s press “is not your father’s press from 20 years ago… but still it is absolutely essential and consequential” and noted that, “I believe in the First Amendment. [And] not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it.”
While Biden wasn’t afraid to address the many concerns about this age, he also didn’t hold back when it came to his political rivals. While sending off the crowd, he warned them to be safe and act responsibly. “If you find yourself confused or disoriented,” said the president, “you’re either drunk, or Marjorie Taylor Greene.”
For more, listen to Roy Wood Jr. on The Last Laugh podcast.