Tuesday, May 02, 2006

In Re: Stephen Colbert

The single best, most incisive review I've read about the Correspondent's Dinner (and no, Mr. Wolcott, sir, this has nothing to do with the piece I wrote on spec for VF....but if you have a minute...)
A note about the Stephen Colbert monologue at the Correspondents' Dinner that Elisabeth Bumiller seems to have slept through face-down in her entree. No question the stint played better on TV than it did in the room with C-SPAN cutting to gowned lovelies in the audience with glaceed expressions and tuxedo'd men making with the nervous eyes, but to say he "bombed" or "stunk up the place" (Jonah Goldberg's usual elegance) is wishful thinking on behalf of the wishful thinkers on the right, who have nothing but wishful thinking to prop them up during the day.

I know what bombing looks like. It looks like Don Imus when he did a standup monologue before President and Hillary Clinton, and went over so badly that sweat broke out in rivulets down his face and in parts unseen. What triggered the perspiration cascade was a sexual innuendo about how Clinton rooted for his favorite football team by yelling, "Go baby!" at the TV, which Imus remarked was probably not the first time he had voiced such a giddyup--an allusion to Clinton's poontang exploits, if you'll pardon the expression. Imus gave such a crass performance and caused such embarrassment to himself and everybody in the room that there were calls for apologies and he was in danger of being as contaminated as Whoopie Goldberg and Ted Danson briefly were after their unfortunate blackface episode.

See, that was Colbert's mistake. He didn't slip in any smutty lines. Had he done so, his standup would have been impossible to ignore as the Fox News hotheads would have gone into full outrage mode to defend the honor of Laura Bush and her virgin ears. Instead, Colbert was cool, methodical, and mercilessly ironic, not getting rattled when the audience quieted with discomfort (and resorting to self-deprecating "savers," as most comedians do), but closing in on the kill, as unsparing of the press as he was of the president. I mean no disrespect to Jon Stewart to say that in the same circumstances, he would have resorted to shtick; Colbert didn't. Apart from flubbing the water-half-empty joke about Bush's poll ratings, he was in full command of his tone, comic inflection, and line of attack. The we-are-not-amused smile Laura Bush gave him when he left the podium was a priceless tribute to the displeasure he incurred. To me, Colbert looked very relaxed after the Bushes left the room and he greeted audience members, signed autographs. And why wouldn't he be? He achieved exactly what he wanted to achieve, delivered the message he intended to deliver. Mission accomplished.
Wolcott nails it, and it's how I saw the monologue. Colbert studiously avoided his in-room audience, knowing he was playing to the bloggers (or Blogtopia©, as Skippy likes to say) and to the viewers of the Daily Show and Colbert Report. He zinged and manhandled (in a totally non-Brokeback Mountain way) the Bully-In-Chief and his minions and orcs, the press.

How do we know he scored and scored big? Well, as Wolcott points out, the crowd IN the room became hushed, near silent, and yet Colbert didn't resort to "Is this thing on?" humour. But more...he was totally ignored in the media the next news cycle, which chose to focus on the air-fluff impersonator (who the fuck was that, anyway, and couldn't they have found a funnier one?) miming the near-unmimable. I mean, after all, how do you mimic a man who is a cartoon of himself?

I suspect that, had there been an antechamber where hoi polloi could stand and listen to his performance being piped in, you would have heard the echoes of riotous laughter ringing in the silence of the hall (and picked up by C-Span's mikes, no doubt), punctuating the lack of humour and deep fear that the audience in the room must have been feeling, as truth showed up like Carrie in her goat-blood drenched dress.

Remember when Jon Stewart (again, Wolcott is spot-on in his assessment of Stewart's likely reaction) hosted the Oscars and kept trying to toss off self-deprecating one-liners? And how the press and television commentators the next day remarked how "unremarkable" this supposed scion-of-Carlin-crossed-with-Maher was?

Colbert? Nothing. Why? They "got" him. And they realized he wasn't trying to be funny.