The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner is a glitzy and peculiar occasion each spring, where the politics and prose set gathers to pull back how chummy they all really are. It was a boys club—not figuratively—until 1962, when the reporter Helen Thomas cried foul straight up to President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy vowed that he would not attend the dinners until they became open to women, and so they did. (Thomas became the first woman elected to be an officer at the WHCA, and the first to serve as its president.) Over the dinner's 82 years, only three women have headlined: the first solo female host was Paula Poundstone, in 1992. In his remarks that evening, George H.W. Bush recounted his introduction to Poundstone: “I said to her, ‘How are you?’ She immediately turned to me and said, ‘Stop being political.’” Laughter. In 1993, there was Elayne Boosler; in 2009, Wanda Sykes. Cecily Strong will be the fourth.
In agreeing to take the seat beside the president of the free world—watched by moguls, starlets, and scruffy journalists all suited up—Strong is approaching their zenith. When the WHCA came calling, she may well have thought of a woman whose ascension from the Chicago improv scene to “Saturday Night Live” she followed, the comedian and writer Amy Poehler. Strong, who, through a representative for NBC, declined to speak with me, has called Poehler her hero. She told SFGate last year, “Every time I’m offered something, I think, ‘What would Amy Poehler do?'”
A review of Strong's recent past shows exactly why Amy Poehler's confidence lessons are so crucial for female comedians. In June 2012, Lorne Michaels, S.N.L.'s creator and producer, traveled out to Chicago to scope talent at the iO Theater. The iO held auditions in preparation for Michaels’s arrival. But, as the New York Post reported last year, Strong didn't come to try out. The theater’s cofounder, Charna Halpern, exclaimed in surprise:
“You didn’t audition for me,” Halpern said. “We’re getting ready for Lorne Michaels!”
“Yeah, I know,” Strong replied from behind the wooden half-door at the box-office counter, where she sold tickets for the twice-nightly improv shows. “I have some ideas, but I wanted to make sure it was really a great audition before I did it.”
To be a female in public often involves being unsure of whether or not you’ve got the goods. Halpern wound up pulling Strong into her office, where Strong “did a bit about an annoying girl at a party.” Then she auditioned for Michaels. In a Q&A with Rachel Dratch, Strong explained that, at each step of the audition process, she kept convincing herself that the role wasn’t likely:
“Push it from your brain, push it from your brain, because this isn’t going to happen.” ...
“Well, I’m not being hired right now.” ...
“I’m not gonna get this.”
But, as we now all know, she got it. She left Chicago and the multiple jobs she held there—Strong says she worked at Planned Parenthood for “a long time,” and remains involved with their work—and moved to New York.
Strong is 30 years old, and consistently employs her youth and good looks to interrogate how sexy young women are “supposed” to be—acknowledging gender expectations in order to toy with them, and mock and bash. On S.N.L. last weekend, she played a dolled-up contestant in a fake MTV game show, “Match’d.” Her bachelorette character was horny and not afraid to say so, and the three male contestants were, too. “I'm a waiter, so I know food. I would take you back to my house and show you my special ingredient: my penis.”
The twist came when we learned, along with the three guys, that the host—played by the actor Woody Harrelson—was her father. He was a veteran of the armed forces, which is to say, the apex of manly respectability. The joke, then, was what the contestants wouldn’t say in front of her dad—but of course they’d say it to her: “I'm horny but a gentleman, and since you're a lady, you can go down on me first.”
Strong’s best known and most-beloved recurring character on the show is “Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With At a Party,” an infuriating woman in curly tendrils, satin clutch, cleavage-baring silky top, who ought to be far more self-conscious than she is.
Take one exemplary sketch, a visit in which former cast member Seth Meyers, as “Weekend Update” anchor, announces the lofty topic of conversation—economics, immigration, foreign policy. He introduces Strong. “Here now with her thoughts on these complicated political issues is the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With At a Party.” Oh brother. Strong rolls out, and informs Meyers:
“People are angry, Seth, society’s angry, and sometimes it’s not angry enough. Open your eyes, people: war, hunger, diseases, it’s like —pick one. Like, if I eat French fries at dinner, then I do the rest of the day good.”
She’s sanctimonious, outraged, syntactically dysfunctional, and totally distracted—she can't stop pulling out her phone. The character's punchline never needs to be voiced, because it's clear: Women! (Probably delivered in the tone of the patriarch from “The Honeymooners.”) They think they understand issues but they're just fixing their hair, pulling out foreign policy buzzwords for the purpose of being holier than thou. The shrews. Strong's brand is less overt—yes, for now, less confident—than that of Poehler or her gold-standard comedy sister, Tina Fey, but the game is there, the small subversion: do you get it?
Strong's rise will be more and more pronounced, as the White House dinner inches up. She's got to get accustomed to the thought that Obama will take the mic, turn to her, and say nice things. And she'll be photographed all the while. Poehler and Fey haven't hosted the dinner—nor have Silverman, Dunham, McCarthy, Schumer—which makes Strong the woman bringing our age's brand of gender-inflected comedy to the White House. Her performance will hinge on whether or not they can figure out the humor: appealing and ambitious, raunchy and real.
Let's hope Strong can perfect the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With At a Party, and maybe change that word “Party” to “Congress.” She could be quite a tool to shock the politicos and the press corps into confronting the way they too often see women: as unserious.