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May 02, 2006

Colbert Bombed On Merit

Perhaps the only genuinely funny thing to come from Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner has been the reaction of the Lefty side of the blogosphere. Sensing some global conspiracy to ignore the "gutsy" performance, lefty bloggers like Peter Dao are incensed over what they perceive as media censorship of the Event Of The Century:

This is the power of the media to choose the news, to decide when and how to shield Bush from negative publicity. Sins of omission can be just as bad as sins of commission. And speaking of a sycophantic media establishment bending over backwards to accommodate this White House and to regurgitate pro-GOP and anti-Dem spin, I urge readers to pick up a copy of Eric Boehlert's new book, Lapdogs. It's a powerful indictment of the media's timidity during the Bush presidency. Boehlert rips away the facade of a "liberal media" and exposes the invertebrates masquerading as journalists who have allowed and enabled the Bush administration's many transgressions to go unchecked, under-reported, or unquestioned.

A final thought: Bush's clownish banter with reporters -- which is on constant display during press conferences -- stands in such stark contrast to his administration's destructive policies and to the gravity of the bloodbath in Iraq that it is deeply unsettling to watch. This may be impolitic, but wouldn't refraining from frat-style horseplay be appropriate for this man? Or at the least, can't reporters suppress their raucous laughter every time he blurts out another jibe... the way they did when Colbert put them in their place?

Dao only undermines his argument by providing, far and away, better comedic material than Colbert brought to the table Saturday night. Since when are the light-hearted goings on at a press dinner major news events? Such stories are generally relegated to the Style, Arts, or Living sections or at best an unprominent footnote in the Politics section. One gets the impression nothing the President could have done would have found favor in Dao's eyes. If he didn't make fun of himself, that would surely have been cited as more proof that he didn't listen to his critics. As it was, putting himself down at an event where this is expected is cited as proof of arrogance and insensitivity to criticism. Incroyable.

Regarding Colbert, are we really to be shocked, five years in, when one more self-important celebrity hijacks the microphone and subjects his captive audience to a bitter political diatribe against the White House? Since when is boorishness or a lack of situational awareness new for Hollywood? Even The New Republic's Noam Scheiber, admittedly no fan of Bush admits Colbert's routine contained nothing he hadn't heard before:

I'm a big Stephen Colbert fan, a huge Bush detractor, and I think the White House press corps has been out to lunch for much of the last five years. (Though, unlike many in the blogosphere, I don't think that's because White House reporters are lazy or stupid.) That should have made me the ideal audience-member for Colbert's performance at this weekend's White House Correspondents' Dinner (WHCD). As it happens, though, I laughed out loud maybe twice during Colbert's entire 20-odd minute routine. Colbert's problem, blogosphere conspiracy theories notwithstanding, is that he just wasn't very entertaining. Most of the funny lines had been recycled from his show; the new material was all pretty tired--including a way-too-long video presentation whose big joke was that ... Helen Thomas is old and batty. (Stop me if you've heard that one.)

Various aggrieved bloggers have suggested the audience wasn't laughing because Colbert was too tough on the president and the press corps. I dunno. I didn't find Colbert appreciably harder on either of them than, say, Jay Leno was two years ago--though Leno did take shots at John Kerry, too, which maybe took some of his edge off. In any case, it wasn't just journalists who didn't find Colbert amusing. I was sitting about ten feet from Ed Helms, Colbert's former "Daily Show" colleague, and kept glancing over to check his reaction. He cracked some smiles here and there. But I never saw him doubled over with laughter, not even close. My sense is that the blogosphere response is more evidence of a new Stalinist aesthetic on the left--until recently more common on the right--wherein the political content of a performance or work of art is actually more important than its entertainment value.

The Post has another take on the audience's muted reaction:

The reviews from the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner are in, and the consensus is that President Bush and Bush impersonator Steve Bridges stole Saturday's show -- and Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert's cutting satire fell flat because he ignored the cardinal rule of Washington humor: Make fun of yourself, not the other guy.

Traditionally, the Press Dinner has never been the place to Speak Truthiness to Power, make impassioned speeches or chalk up political points and thinly veiling partisan attacks as "comedy" doesn't cut it, especially if your jokes are neither novel nor particularly amusing.

In any event, the only bravery Colbert displayed was the pushy kind shown by Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and a league of other entertainers who suddenly decided their role as "Artistes" gave them special license to ignore the rules lesser mortals are content to live by: tailor your words to the audience and occasion and don't bloviate.

Posted by Cassandra at May 2, 2006 08:26 AM


You said that so much better than I did. Me, I got all nasty and snarky. Then again, Peter Daou's self-righteous act does seem to get under my skin.

Posted by: Jimmie at May 2, 2006 02:19 PM

Speaking as one o' them thar "lesser mortals"?

I tend to ignore "artistes"...

Posted by: camojack at May 2, 2006 04:34 PM

So if you are successful at what you do you are "self important"? So if your art is built around sarcasm and irony but your audience is afraid of its own truth you should change? Mr. Colbert has integrity. In his beliefs, in his work, and his own life. But he's an "entertainer" right? He's there to make his audience chuckle and not think. Please. How insincere and insecure that audience must be. I find this particular meme floating around both pathetic and amusing. Somehow after not being able to take a joke the continued blab is that the left is humourless. Please. Grow up. And get past our ridiculous blind fealty to the man and not the office.

Posted by: Girl at May 3, 2006 02:49 PM

Excellent comment, "Girl"... The video I saw of the WHCD and the "Colbert Segment" showed people laughing and enjoying his skewering of the prez and the press... Maybe there's another video out there? Anyway, Colbert was in character and did an excellent job of rubbing our faces in the rotten-ness eminating from the Bush administration... We all might as well laugh our way to hell in the hand basket BushCo has created for us...!

Posted by: jbj at May 4, 2006 12:12 AM

JBJ and Girl: So Colbert played his character and did an excellent job? I suppose your only barometer of his excellence is the degree to which he made people uncomfortable with his criticism of their politics? Does the question of his actually being funny really count?

Read that Noam Scheiber quote again and you'll get it. "My sense is that the blogosphere response is more evidence of a new Stalinist aesthetic on the left--until recently more common on the right--wherein the political content of a performance or work of art is actually more important than its entertainment value."

Posted by: Michael Andreyakovich at May 5, 2006 05:04 PM

The stuff about Bush knowing through his gut and not through his brains was brilliant.

The media has been playing up Bush's gut instincts for years.

Most of the stuff was a rip on the media, not Bush. making the media uncomfortable about the way they take dictation is the least any American can do.

The video was kind of lame, though.

Posted by: Robert at May 6, 2006 01:24 AM

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