Colbert’s White House Correspondent Dinner Performance Underscores Irony’s Power And Delicacy


The scene: The White House Correspondent Dinner. The time: right after President George W. Bush put in a boffo performance next to a top-notch Bush impersonator. It was a hard act to follow.

But Comedy Central‘s Stephen Colbert most assuredly followed it in his irony-heavy TV persona of a TV News talk show host that seems reminiscent of a Fox News host with the initials B.O. (or, rather B.O’R.)

What followed was a study in contrasting satirical forms — the easier task with one form (the one-liner, the visual, the lines dependent on joke construction and timing)…and the tougher task with the other (heavy irony, which relies on shared assumptions)..

The result: Bush & his new performing bud brought down the house with a much “safer”and traditional form of self-effacing political humor, while Colbert’s edgier Comedy Central-style humor clearly turned off some members of the audience and — Editor and Publisher suggests — perhaps Bush and his wife Laura.

Links to his performance are HERE.

You could see it if you watched it live (we did): while Colbert got laughs, cutaway shots showed some members of the audience unlaughing or seemingly unamused. If in show biz you measure the success of a comedy set by the duration and volume of laughs, Bush & impersonator were a smash. By THAT standard, Colbert wasn’t since he got (with a few exception) mostly softer “titters.”

Yet, in terms of content, Colbert’s satire was more biting, had a message and was far less playful — more akin to what you’d hear in a point-of-view “set” in a comedy club. And irony is always a tougher task.

The Internet term for irony is “snark.” If done poorly it can veer into the area of clumsiness and die a painful death (that seemed to be the consensus about radio talk show host Don Imus’ routine at the dinner 10 years ago.). Colbert’s routine didn’t go that route but clearly some audience members either didn’t share his assumptions, or didn’t like him sharing them in public with Bush sitting there — or didn’t like to be put in a position where they would laugh and show all the world that they shared them.

As E&P reports:

A blistering comedy “tributeâ€? to President Bush by Comedy Central’s faux talk show host Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondent Dinner Saturday night left George and Laura Bush unsmiling at its close…

…Colbert, who spoke in the guise of his talk show character, who ostensibly supports the president strongly, urged the Bush to ignore his low approval ratings, saying they were based on reality, “and reality has a well-known liberal bias.â€?

That was still one of the more gentle moments. MORE:

He attacked those in the press who claim that the shake-up at the White House was merely re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. “This administration is soaring, not sinking,â€? he said. “They are re-arranging the deck chairs–on the Hindenburg.â€?

Colbert told Bush he could end the problem of protests by retired generals by refusing to let them retire. He compared Bush to Rocky Balboa in the “Rocky� movies, always getting punched in the face—“and Apollo Creed is everything else in the world.�

Turning to the war, he declared, “I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.”

That was one point where you could feel a chill from part of the audience. AND:

He noted former Ambassador Joseph Wilson in the crowd, as well as “Valerie Plame.” Then, pretending to be worried that he had named her, he corrected himself, as Bush aides might do, “Uh, I mean… Joseph Wilson’s wife.” He asserted that it might be okay, as prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was probably not there.

Colbert also made biting cracks about missing WMDs, “photo ops� on aircraft carriers and at hurricane disasters, and Vice President Cheney shooting people in the face.

Observing that Bush sticks to his principles, he said, “When the president decides something on Monday, he still believes it on Wednesday – no matter what happened Tuesday.”

That seemed to be the point of no return where you could sense a kind of nervousness in one part of the audience.

Also lampooning the press, Colbert complained that he was “surrounded by the liberal media who are destroying this country, except for Fox News. Fox believes in presenting both sides—the president’s side and the vice president’s side.” He also reflected on the good old days, when the media was still swallowing the WMD story.

Addressing the reporters, he said, “You should spend more time with your families, write that novel you’ve always wanted to write. You know, the one about the fearless reporter who stands up to the administration. You know– fiction.”

He claimed that the Secret Service name for Bush’s new press secretary is “Snow Job.” Colbert closed his routine with a video fantasy where he gets to be White House Press Secretary, complete with a special “Gannonâ€? button on his podium. By the end, he had to run from Helen Thomas and her questions about why the U.S. really invaded Iraq and killed all those people.

The video was perhaps the smoothest part of the segment, since it was less dependent on immediate audience reponse. If a comedian reads a phone book and gets huge laughs his material was great. If a comedian reads clever, witty, material with a strong message and the response is medium some will say it wasn’t as clever as the phone book.

As Colbert walked from the podium, when it was over, the president and First Lady gave him quick nods, unsmiling, and left immediately.

E&P’s Joe Strupp, in the crowd, observed that quite a few sitting near him looked a little uncomfortable at times, perhaps feeling the material was a little too biting–or too much speaking “truthiness” to power.

Asked by E&P after it was over if he thought he’d been too harsh, Colbert said, “Not at all.” Was he trying to make a point politically or just get laughs? “Just for laughs,” he said. He said he did not pull any material for being too strong, just for time reasons.

Indeed, you didn’t get a sense any of it was pulled — or that Colbert pulled any punches.

It’s just that the Bush routine’s Bob Hope-style, classic stand-up humor, resembling a tame Saturday Night Live sketch was far less risky and an easier laugh generator that irony-laced humor aimed at getting laughs via satirical points. The first style requires writers and perhaps a session with a comedy coach; the other requires a bit of professional courage since there’s a risk the irony could be unappreciated by part of the audience that doesn’t share its pointed assumptions.

Did Colbert bomb? Absolutely not. But he’ll likely have some verbal bombs aimed at him, particularly from some radio and cable talk show hosts.

Bush’s performance will be re-run on some shows for the next few days due to its entertainment value; Colbert’s will be re-run and discussed because of how it was received by some in the audience, because it’s dagger-sharp message has some news value and because he was willing to take a risk at doing the kind of satire he did…where he did it.

AS THEY SAY EVERYONE (INCLUDING TMV) IS CRITIC THESE DAYS AND CRITICS DIFFER. HERE ARE A FEW MORE “REVIEWS” (These are excerpts so read the WHOLE review):

Ed Morrissey says Bush & Bush Clone were great but Colbert bombed:

Initially Fox News pulled away for a couple of minutes of useless analysis, but the anchor of the broadcast took viewers back to the presentation because, in her words, Steve Colbert “never fails to make us laugh.” Fox then broadcast three of the most laugh-free minutes of comedy seen on national television since Chevy Chase fancied himself as the new Johnny Carson. Colbert barely garnered even polite laughter for his banal and obvious schtick, and eventually Fox returned to its obviously embarrassed anchor. Now that was funny.

The Democratic Daily Blog offers a transcript of Colbert’s remarks and writes: “Sounds like a good time must have been had by all… except the President.”

Taylor Marsh: “He created quite a ruckus. Even First Lady Laura Bush got miffed, which was obvious at the end. She walked right past Colbert. There’s more at Editors and Publishers. Colbert put together a tough routine, though I didn’t catch the whole speech. But nobody was spared from what I caught, with Helen Thomas offering the closing act, which was priceless. It will be interesting when people start weighing in.”

James Joyner: “Frankly, while I only found a couple of the lines particularly funny, I didn’t find any of the material itself over the line. It’s not like the Don Imus performance a few years back. The problem was the delivery, which was very heavy and somewhat angry. A lighter touch would have made it go over much better and probably garnered more laughter as well.”

Wax Banks: “Colbert spoke at the White House Correspondents Dinner this weekend. It’s one of the more daring comedy routines I’ve heard, delivered straight to the faces of the people it’s lampooning, pulling no punches. Bush was there and allegedly wasn’t happy at all about the performance. Apparently no one was happy, at least not outwardly – there’s hardly any laughter at some pretty cutting jokes. But that’s no surprise. Bravo to Colbert (who did the whole speech in character).”

Riehl World View:

I’d agree – it was embarrassing to watch. Don’t know as I have ever watched Comedy Central, let alone his show, or that I ever will, now. Especially on the heels of the cartoon cowardice they displayed. From what I have read around, I didn’t take Colbert for a complete moron with little if any talent, class, style, or judgment at all…..Basically, it struck me as high school, or first year college level in terms of timing, topic and delivery. Yes, I know, a Lib will say I’m just expressing sour grapes because of the embarrassment Colbert presented for President Bush. But I am really being quite serious.

Enrevanche: “Last night, however, my man Stephen Colbert was the keynote speaker… and having watched his scathing, subversive performance this morning via downloaded BitTorrent video, and seeing the audience’s visibly stunned lack of response, I have to say that Colbert is my nominee for Man of the Year…The politico-journalist-complex hacks in the audience were mostly too stunned to laugh; the reaction shots that C-SPAN cut into the performance are absolutely priceless.”

–Allapundit at the new site Hot Air:

Tough night for Colby, who must have regarded this gig as a chance to play the Super Bowl on his home field…In Colbert’s defense, he might not have been playing for laughs. The dissident posture is very important to our friends on the left; if SC had kept things light and wasted his opportunity to speak “truthâ€? to power, they’d have crucified him for it. As it is, the moonbats will be building statues of him tomorrow. To paraphrase another delusional comedian who wasn’t as funny as he thought he was, better to be Kos for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.

PSoTD: “Oh, he bombed? Right. That’s why everyone’s talking about it today. That’s why he’s being championed at half the blogosphere and belittled in the other half – because he bombed. No, Colbert’s comments have a life that will extend the remainder of Bush’s life. When GWB II dies (or goes to jail), think anyone will remember any of the lines of Steve Bridges [the Bush impersonator] last night? Hardly. Bush? No. Think Colbert’s lines will resurface.”

Michelle Malkin: “Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, the featured comedian, fell flat…”

Tennessee Guerilla Women: “Colbert ripped the Great Decider into miniscule bloody shreds. Only a few feet away from Colbert, the president’s splotched and botoxy red face appeared to be in imperial pain.”

Ann Althouse:

I love Colbert, but it was a little scary watching him do his “Colbert Report” character outside of his brilliantly comical studio set that frames him as a ridiculous right-wing blowhard. We love the humor in context, but when the targets of the humor are there in the room with him, we can’t dissolve into hilarity…

…Wasn’t it awful to perform without laughs? Maybe he should have filed the edges off a couple of jokes, but, basically, he did what he had to do to maintain his credibility with his real audience, those who watch “The Colbert Report.” And we’ll remember the horrible laughlessness of that night and marvel at the steely nerve of Stephen Colbert.

Trinity of One: “Stephen Colbert is my hero. Last night, he gave this amazing, brave speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner. He excoriated Bush and most of Washington–it’s breath-taking.”

Right Winged:

Colbert’s performance was just extremely weak, and as I said he totally bombed. I don’t base this on my reaction to the jokes… I base it on the dead silence for roughly 90% of his monologue, in a room full of liberals. Setting aside the fact that he had hardly any funny jokes, he also did go a little too far in his “jokes” in trashing the President who was seated only a few feet away. It just got worse and worse. The funniest part was probably when he pointed out Plame and Wilson (again, huh?) in the audience and then faked concern for “outting” her. Anyway, I was shocked at Colbert’s performance. Usually the guest entertainer is the best part…

GoDrex.com: “You gotta love this guy. Talk about balls.”

U.S. Politics has some more reaction.

Respublica:

Some reviewers believe as Ann Althouse wrote, that he had to stay in keeping with his character on the Report or risk losing his fan base. I disagree because the Colbert personna on Comedy Central affects an almost politically androgynous manner. Republicans like him because although he is being satirical, the satire leaves room for viewers who support President Bush to find something to like. That was lost last night. The video bit with Colbert trying frantically to escape aged reporter Helen Thomas was the one funny part, but it came too late to save Stephen Colbert. The audience, made up of movie stars and famous athletes and major news people were mostly silent during his time at the podium which says a lot about how he did. We will probably continue to watch the Colbert Report, but not quite as often and not with the same affection for the man.

Intoxination: “I guess when you look in the mirror you don’t always like what you see and this administration is no different. Colbert is great at his job of playing a conservative talking head. Things like blaming a “liberal media”, and everyone but the administration is EXACTLY what they do. They will not take blame unless it is something that might give them a little “political” boost. Well George – sorry “your” dinner was “messed up” by this. Oh wait – it isn’t your dinner. It is Washington’s dinner and the correspondents’ dinner. Grow up and get over it.”

Rising Hegemon: “Ever try to do stand up at an indictment? That’s what Colbert did last night at the White House Correspondents Dinner. His routine didn’t get big laughs because it came at a self-inflated, self-congratulatory dinner which did nothing less than praise the “bravery” and “dedication” of the White House Press Reporters.”

Speak Speak also offers a transcript and writes: “In terms of the intensity of roasting Bush, things started out genial with Bush laughing, and then as Colbert said that 68% of Americans disapprove of the job Bush is doing, Bush seemed to be enjoying himself less.”

Planet Doug: “Man, this was funny but really edgy. It’s like doing comedy about Iran in Iran in front of clerics.”

blony: “The man who had no trouble lampooning a dead prisoner (more at DKOS) seems to have lost his sense of humor. Seems Stephen Colbert got a bit close to the bone – the truth, that is – at the White House Correspondent Dinner…It has become a surreal fact of life that the most truthful and accurate analysis in the media of the Bush administration has been coming from comedians such as Colbert or Bill Maher. Colbert is seriously funny even when talking about his own humor.”

The Civil Engine: “First of all, I have to say that the guy has some serious stones. The crowd was mostly silent, yes, but it was only because Colbert didn’t give the usually nods, nudges and deference to power that are so common at these types of events….I watched along with my sister (a Republican) and my girlfriend (a Moderate) and they were both in tears from laughing so hard. Does that mean we all have a poor sense of humor? No. It means that we can see Colbert’s schtick for what it is: Brilliant and brave.”

Shakespeare’s Sister:

Throughout the entire thing, he would periodically look evenly at Bush, holding his gaze and addressing him directly as “Mr. President.â€? Bush looked back at him with a face of stone (save for one time when Colbert flubbed a set-up). Standing in front of a room full of people who didn’t, couldn’t, laugh, letting them have it with everything he’s got, sweating bullets, Colbert would look dead at Bush and never blink… I can’t recall anyone so forthrightly addressing the president like that, holding such a harsh mirror in front of his nose, except for perhaps Colbert’s obvious co-conspirator Helen Thomas, whose life has been spent questioning presidents.

Pam’s House Blend: “He smoked this administration, completely scorched it to an ash. And Dear Leader and Laura weren’t laughing.”

–Bloggledygook has a MUST READ post HERE with a different perspective from many others on the left, center and right. We won’t quote it because it would take it out of context. Read it all.

Due to travel today we may not be able to add more to this roundup. Please click on the TRACKBACKS to this post to read more reaction to the Colbert routine.

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