WH Defends Comedian Larry Wilmore’s Controversial Remarks at Correspondents’ Dinner

By Melanie Arter | May 3, 2016 | 10:00am EDT
Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show” host Larry Wilmore (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Monday defended the remarks of Comedy Central's Larry Wilmore at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, saying that any comedian who signs up to follow President Obama at the dinner “is assuming one of the most difficult tasks in comedy” and that the president “appreciated the spirit of Mr. Wilmore’s expressions.”

Among the controversial remarks that grew the most condemnation, Wilmore said, “Welcome to Negro Night here in Washington. Or as Fox News will report, ‘Two thugs disrupt elegant dinner in DC.'” Wilmore closed out his monologue, saying, “So, Mr. President, I’m going to keep it a hundred. Yo, Barry, you did it, my n***a!”


American Urban Radio Network’s April Ryan asked Earnest what he thought about Wilmore’s use of the n-word.

“I think the first thing that I would observe is that any comedian who signed up to follow President Obama at the White House Correspondents dinner is assuming one of the most difficult tasks in comedy, and just by nature of the engagement, that’s a tough job following the president of the United States,” said Earnest.

“President Obama also over the years has shown himself to be rather adept at delivering a speech that consists primarily of one- or two-liners, and the president enjoys that opportunity. The point is that Mr. Wilmore had a difficult job that he was facing on Saturday, and the president’s expectation is, as Mr. Wilmore took on that responsibility, is that comedians are going to go right up to the line,” Earnest added.

“But he crossed the line. Many African-Americans in that room – to include civil rights leaders, black comedians - were very appalled, even members of the Republican Party. Black Republicans were upset. Black Democrats were upset. People felt that not just throwing it at him, he threw it at them, and also it diminished the office of the presidency and it diminished him. Did he cross the line?” Ryan asked.

Earnest said this is not the first time that people observed on the Monday after the White House Correspondents’ dinner “that the comedian on Saturday night crossed the line.” He noted that in 2006, many people felt Stephen Colbert “overstepped his bounds in delivering remarks” as well as in 2009 with comedienne Wanda Sykes.

“So it’s not the first time that we’ve had a conversation like this in which these kinds of concerns have been raised or expressed. I had an opportunity to speak to the president about this briefly this morning. He said that he appreciated the spirit of the sentiments that Mr. Wilmore expressed,” Earnest said.

Wilmore “ended his speech by saying that he couldn’t put into words the pride that he felt in this president, and he made the observation that our country has made remarkable progress just in his lifetime – from not being willing to accept an African-American quarterback to electing and re-electing an African-American not just to lead the United States but to lead the free world,” Earnest pointed out.

“Again, I take Mr. Wilmore at his words that he found that to be a powerful transformation just in his lifetime, and something that he seemed to be pretty obviously proud of,” Earnest added.

“So does Wilmore’s use of freedom of speech give president’s the detractors fodder now to be able to call him that and call others that?” Ryan asked.

“I have no idea what impact Larry Wilmore’s speech is going to have on the president’s critics, and I don’t think I’m going to spend much time worrying about it,” Earnest said.

“Understand that there is a conversation about that word. The president in June of last year used it as a teaching method to show that issues of race are still a problem in this country, but Wilmore used it for the president somewhat as the butt of a joke, and you were in that room as well as I was. There was an eerie, awkward silence and quietness. People didn’t know how to do handle that,” Ryan pointed out.

“I know this is a word that does—I’m confident that Mr. Wilmore used the word by design,” Earnest said, adding that Wilmore “was seeking to be provocative” and that “any reading of his comments makes clear he was not using the president as the butt of a joke.”

Earnest added that “this is a tough assignment that any comedian takes on when they sign up for this job, and the president’s expectation when he walks into that room is that that comedian and other people are going to get much closer to the line than they ordinarily would as they try to make a joke.”

“Okay, so I want to be very clear. The president is okay with his use and how he used the word, that the n-word, jigaboo, Negro nation, and thug,” Ryan asked.

“I’ll just restate what I said before, which is that the president expressed, what the president said is that he appreciated the spirit of Mr. Wilmore’s expressions on Saturday night,” Earnest said.

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