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Hollywood meets D.C.: Inside the White House Correspondents' Dinner

The Academy Awards it ain't -- but it will have to do.

The 2014 White House Correspondents' Dinner kicks off in Washington on Saturday, and for one night only, the drab masses in D.C. can make believe they're in Tinseltown.

Affectionately dubbed "nerd prom" by those in attendance, the gala is Washington's most glamorous annual event, an opportunity for journalists and D.C. power players to rub elbows with celebrities, have a few (too many) drinks, and poke fun at one another.

The event, sponsored by the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA), is headlined by a pair of comedy routines, one from a comedian and one from the president. Both have traditionally used the opportunity to roast each other and the puffed-up personalities in the audience.

(Watch a webcast of tonight's routines on starting at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET)

} } The comedian this year is Joel McHale, also an actor and host of "The Soup" on the E! Network. On Monday, McHale spoke with David Letterman on CBS' "The Late Show" about his new gig.

"Seems pretty easy," he joked. "I'm just going to wing it, see what happens."

McHale conceded he might be a strange fit for the job -- he spends more time mocking the Kardashians on his show than talking politics -- so he sought some advice from those who have been there before.

"I called Conan [O'Brien], I called Seth Myers, I called Jimmy Kimmel, I called Craig Ferguson," McHale said. "I called Carrot Top, just in case he had done it."

Their unanimous verdict: "It was the weirdest gig of all time."

"These people [in the audience] may have made enough money and have enough power to never laugh again," McHale said.

The dinner has grown in recent years, spawning a series of associated parties sponsored by various media organizations, notable names, and interest groups hoping to glom onto the night's pomp and circumstance.

"It used to just be pre-parties before the dinner and one or two post parties, always on a Saturday," recalled Marielle Shortell, a managing partner with Syzygy Events who's been closely involved in producing a number of events associated with the dinner. "Now there are cocktail parties the day before and brunches on Sunday."

Shortell said the dinner provides normally-staid D.C. with an opportunity to shed its reservations and conventions and indulge in something a bit more flashy.

"Not that all parties are stuffy in D.C.," she said, "but I would say that every event here wants to be a standout."

For all the hobnobbing and glad-handing that goes on at the dinner, though, there is a more noble purpose behind it all. The WHCA awards scholarships each year to promising would-be journalists in high school and college, and the recipients are honored onstage at the dinner, receiving their awards with the president and much of the Washington press corps looking on.

"We think it's a great moment, explained Steven Thomma, the current president of the WHCA and the senior White House correspondent with McClatchy Newspapers. "They really like it, and we're happy to help them along the way to eventually take our jobs away from us."

This year, Thomma noted, there will also be a special scholarship given in honor of Harry S. McAlpin, Jr., who became the first African-American to question the president at a press conference in 1944. The WHCA refused to admit McAlpin as a member, and he passed away in 1985, but the organization has now created a scholarship to commemorate his work.

Despite the substance behind the bling, media coverage tends to focus on the celebrities and the comic routines. In recent years, the event has come under fire for its celebritization, which some worry has overshadowed the important work done by the press corps.

But the dinner hasn't always been such a glitzy affair. CBS News Senior White House Correspondent Bill Plante presided over the WHCA from 1986-87, and he recalls an event that was far more buttoned-down than it is today.

The dinner "was smaller -- it was the people who cover the White House, plus their guests, and the president would come," Plante said. Since then, "the place has become a celebrity-fest, and it's become so crowded that you can barely move around."

Plante said the turning point may have been in 1987, when the late Michael Kelly, then a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, was accompanied to the dinner by Fawn Hall, who was Oliver North's secretary and had been caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal.

"That was the beginning of showing up with somebody notable," Plante said, "and from there on, the number of celebrities has increased for the years."

Still, Plante added, he would "never pretend the dinner was something important before that happened."

"It was always an evening off with your best sources, with the president sitting up there," he said. "It was never terribly substantive to begin with."

Those involved in planning the event don't buy the critique that it's become too star-studded for its own good.

"I don't worry about it at all," Thomma said. "We're happy to have a lot of guests at our dinner, but our focus has always been, from the head table, on the work of the White House press corps and the relationship with the presidency. I think we can do both."

"So few celebrities come into D.C.," Shortell added, "So if we can add a little sizzle for one weekend, why not?"