On Saturday night, Washington's media elite and the government they cover will sit down together for a meal, lots of drinks, and a few tame jokes. The annual event is formally known as the White House Correspondents' Dinner but over the last four years it has informally become "nerd prom." This is not accurate on either count: The Correspondents' Dinner is not a prom; its attendees are not nerds.
The event is run by the White House Correspondents' Association, an organization representing the White House press corps. It's not entirely clear who first started referring to its annual dinner as Nerd Prom. (In 1920, when the dinner started, it probably was not called Nerd Prom in part because the word "nerd" didn't exist yet.) The most definitive history of the term blames blogger Ana Marie Cox, now a columnist at The Guardian, for applying it to the dinner in 2009, which matches Google Trends' data.
But Cox did not coin "nerd prom." That honor goes to the San Diego Comics Convention, which has been used since the mid-2000s. While the Comic-Con may not be a prom — that is, a formal dance — there's little question that it is at least a group which includes a healthy percentage of nerds.
It only took about a year from when the term "nerd prom" emerged for it to be discredited. In May of 2010, the Washington Post wrote:
It's time to concede that the White House Correspondents' Association dinner doesn't have much to do with the White House and its correspondents anymore. Forget about that cute, self-deprecating "nerd prom" image — sorry, but nerds can't get into the parties anymore.
What changed is probably what changed in the White House in 2009 — suddenly there was a president that people (read: celebrities) wanted to see and hang out with. The WHCD offered a perfect opportunity. Media companies that had access finally had something that Hollywood wanted. And celebrities signed up in droves for the opportunity to meet the coolest guy in town, Barack Obama. We can extrapolate a bit further from this, although this is speculation. Celebrities showing up in Washington, D.C., was unusual (at least for people who were new to town since the Clinton Administration). Sitting down for dinner with schlubs from the Post (and, ahem, The Atlantic) was even weirder. To those celebrities, this was a probably seen as a dinner held by a bunch of nerds. Their prom, if you will.
But what happened next is that media personalities embraced the term. What the Post called "self-deprecating," what Politico's Roger Simon this morning claims is somehow meant as an insult, is really a humblebrag, a way of saying, "I'm going to this thing that is so dorky because everyone who goes is such a brilliant nerd, and did I mention I am going to it." Also handy, it provides a bit of cover for those who might otherwise be criticized for going to an event just to kiss up to celebrities: "No, no, it's a total nerd event."
Let's look at just how nerdy this year's event is going to be. We've been compiling the announced attendees over the course of the week and categorized them by type and nerdiness to hopefully provide a portrait of the people in the room.
A necessary caveat: The people included on this list are only the people who've been announced as attending by the media outlets that bought tables at the event. It is 1) incomplete and 2) heavy on celebrity, because media companies know enough about the media to know that the media is only going to cover the people sitting at their tables if they include celebrities on the list. It's too bad that the media is so focused on celebrity, the media thinks, because otherwise the media could announce all of the non-celebrities the media wanted to invite but didn't because the media just loves celebrities too much. But, of course, the media could invite non-celebrities to attend. It could, for example, invite scientists or the reporters it employs or people who might enjoy an evening of jokes from Conan O'Brien and jokes from Barack Obama and so on. So while the people included in the data are overwhelmingly celebs — there's no reason they had to be. The media went ahead and invited a bunch of non-nerds to its Nerd Prom.
Here is the breakdown of invited guests, by category. Government generally means anyone holding elected office or an appointed position.
And, more importantly, the nerd status of each.
Who counts as a nerd in our formulation? We used the Milhouse Van Houten definition: a nerd is a dork who is smart. So we counted George Lucas, even though he's also a rich celebrity. We counted Ray LaHood. We counted Eric Cantor, which was probably generous. We did not count Michigan governor Rick Snyder, despite his Twitter handle of @onetoughnerd, because we decide who's a nerd and who isn't, Governor. So we put him as a "Maybe." Other "maybe"s: Jon Favreau, Samantha Power, Steve Israel.
You know who isn't a nerd? Nicole Kidman. Tracy Morgan. Fred Armisen. Claire Danes. Kevin Spacey. You know who extra-super aren't nerds? Kevin Ware and Ryan Zimmerman. They are popular athletes, one of whom makes millions of dollars. Rich, popular athletes are basically as far away from nerds on the spectrum of American culture as it is possible to get.
By our math, over three-quarters of the announced guests at tomorrow night's non-prom are not nerds. The majority are celebrities. As the Post argued in 2010, the name "Nerd Prom" has got to go. But we're not cold-hearted. We will offer this as a replacement name for use in your braggy tweets and immodest recaps: "The D.C. Dinner for Stars and the People that Love Them." Please use this fun shorthand until we get another boring president that only nerds want to hear speak. At which point, we can finally start calling it nerd prom — not that anyone there would be tweeting about it.