NEW YORK — Sitting in her tiny dressing room at “Saturday Night Live” on a Friday afternoon, Cecily Strong was trying to keep her mind off a big looming commitment.
Not the impersonation of Marion Cotillard she was about to rehearse. That she could handle.
But on Saturday, Strong, a 31-year-old comic actor, will take center stage at the Washington Hilton as the host of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, and she was justifiably nervous.
“I truly had days where I’m like, I wish I could disappear today,” said a deceptively upbeat Strong. “Because there’s no way to back out of it.”
This annual gathering of journalists, politicians and celebrities has become a marquee event for the performer who delivers its closing monologue. Strong will be only the second female comedian to host it in more than 20 years, and the first since Wanda Sykes in 2009.
The host must play to both the dinner’s in-person guests and its television viewers; zing Democrats and Republicans with equal zest; and speak satirical truth to power while still showing respect for elected officials.
And, oh yes, she must follow a routine performed by President Barack Obama.
As Joel McHale, the host of last year’s dinner, said in an interview, when he completed his duties, “the relief afterwards was measurable on a Geiger counter.”
Still, Strong said it was a challenge she felt she had to face. “I’ve done a lot of things that have scared me, and they turned out OK,” she said.
Strong, a veteran of Chicago’s Second City and iO comedy theaters, is now in her third season at “SNL” There, she has become known for characters like the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, and one of a pair of barely coherent former porn stars she portrays with Vanessa Bayer.
She also spent one season as a co-anchor of the show’s “Weekend Update” desk, a seat it was announced she was losing just as she was approached about the Washington dinner.
Strong said she was unhappy about how the news media covered her “Weekend Update” exit, but that the transition itself had been “actually a happy thing for me,” allowing her to participate in more sketches and character pieces on the show.
Christi Parsons, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said she selected Strong this year for her “heartland brand of humor.”
“She’s the nice girl who’s cutting in a way that you don’t really notice until later,” said Parsons, the White House correspondent for Tribune Publishing.
Parsons said she wanted to see “a different perspective” at the hosting dais.
“If every year, for too many years, you have the same late-night middle-aged white guys up there talking, then maybe it’s possible you’re not getting a wide range of perspectives,” Parsons said.
Cody Keenan, Obama’s chief speechwriter, said in an interview that the president provides no guidelines or restrictions on what the host can joke about. “There’s no shortage of material when you have a bunch of politicians and media figures with big egos in a room,” Keenan said. “The president can take it. He loves it.”
McHale, the star of “Community” and “The Soup,” said he had been advised by past dinner hosts to bring as much material as possible, and not to duplicate topics covered by the president.
Even as he sat next to Michelle Obama at last year’s dinner, McHale said, he was still revising his stand-up act.
“The first lady looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” McHale said. “I’m like, ‘I’m ripping out jokes that your husband just told.’ ”
Strong is working with writers from “Weekend Update” and Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” among other NBC colleagues, to create her routine.
Understandably, she did not want to reveal too many specifics, but she said she wanted to bring her “silly sensibility” to the show.