Thursday, January 25, 2007

Culture Shock 01.25.07: Pundits put Rich Little on notice

Rich Little's Ronald Reagan.

Who would have thought, in the year 2007, that so inoffensive a comedian as Rich Little could end up at the center of a political controversy?

It's not of his own making, mind you. In fact, it's the 69-year-old, Canadian-born impressionist's inoffensiveness that's the issue.

Little will be the featured entertainment at the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner April 21. This has led to accusations that the White House press corps is going soft on President Bush. Last year's speaker, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, skewered the president with a routine that was the talk of cable TV and the Internet for days afterward. Little's routine, everyone rightly assumes, will be a good deal less biting.

The rap against Little is that he hasn't been a big-name entertainer since the 1970s, when he was a staple on TV variety shows and Dean Martin's celebrity roasts. Most of the celebs in Little's repertoire — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Burns, Johnny Carson, Jack Benny — are dead. Some, in fact, were dead before Little started impersonating them. W.C. Fields, anyone?

But this isn't a college crowd Little will be playing to at the event. This is the White House press corps. These people not only remember the '70s, they were covering the White House then. Remember Watergate? They wrote about it. In fact, they're still writing about it. They can't stop themselves.

Bob Woodward, you're on notice.

This isn't the same audience that watches "The Daily Show." Or, it wasn't until the press picked up on the fact that more young people get their news from Jon Stewart than from Katie Couric.

The Colbert incident aside, the correspondents' dinner isn't where you usually go for scathing political satire. Jay Leno provided the comic relief, if only in theory, in 2004. Al Franken was there during the Clinton administration, so that wasn't exactly confrontational. Besides, Franken hasn't been funny since 1980. And for the record, this isn't even the first time Little has appeared at the event. In 1985, President Reagan and Little (as Reagan) held a joint press conference.

I'll confess, I've always had a soft spot for Little, even though I'm about three decades younger than his target demographic.

In the early '80s, HBO aired "Rich Little's A Christmas Carol" twice a day for all of December. Or something like that. And I watched it every time I could. For years afterward, my career ambition was to be a celebrity impressionist. In fact, you should hear my Sean Connery.

Those making a fuss about the correspondents' dinner have their priorities confused. They shouldn't worry about the White House press corps making the president feel uncomfortable at a posh, black-tie event for the Washington elite. They should concern themselves with how the press deals with President Bush at real press conferences about real subjects that really matter.

Rich Little haters, you're on notice.

Just one last thought: Wouldn't it be funny if Little started his dinner routine with an impression of Stephen Colbert?

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