By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

An Andy Kaufman moment

There’s a headline on Romenesko right now that reads “Colbert ignored the cardinal rule of Washington humor.” And what would that rule be? “Make fun of yourself, not the other guy.” True enough. But the folks to whom Jim links either don’t understand or don’t appreciate what Colbert was up to. His goal wasn’t to have them laughing in the aisles. He was quite obviously trying to make them squirm. And he succeeded.

I’m giving in to the urge to compare Colbert to the late Andy Kaufman, even though I never thought Kaufman was funny, because there is a key similarity. Kaufman’s whole shtick was about making his audience feel uncomfortable, presumably for his own amusement. Colbert’s performance was somewhat more conventional: he clearly wanted the folks watching at home to laugh. But the idea was to get them laughing at the assembled politicians and media folks, not with them.

No, Colbert’s routine wasn’t self-deprecating. It was smug, arrogant and utterly self-righteous in its brutal mockery of the spectacle he had come to lampoon. (That’s why the comparisons to Imus’ performance 10 years ago don’t wash. His flop-sweat-drenched performance was all about self-deprecation.) And even though Colbert didn’t rely on old standbys such as warmth, empathy or even much in the way of jokes, it was also brilliant.


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15 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Dan: You nailed it. Colbert nuked a room full of bum kissers. And all they could do was complain that he didn’t play by the rules. The press thought was about Bush. As you rightly point out, it was about them.

  2. Anonymous

    I agree wholeheartedly. Whatever that stupid dinner is supposed to be (if I was in the Washington press corps, I certainly wouldn’t show up), I’m glad it was what it was. The press corps and Bushco should be at each other’s throats, every time they’re in a room together. They shouldn’t be able to just turn it on and off in the name of some lame pageant. Every journalist should have stood up at that dinner and asked the President why he’s spying on American citizens–why he hasn’t admitted this war was launched on a lie, and is failing miserably. But no, we have this awkward love-in where everyone forgets. Pathetic.

  3. alkali

    I’m a fan of Colbert and not at all a fan of Bush, and yet I have to dissent. Yes, it was uncomfortable, but it would also have been uncomfortable if Colbert had spat in Bush’s face, and I’m not sure what the meaningful difference is between that and what Colbert actually did. There is some value in being civil for its own sake. If Colbert thought the whole event was a corrupt farce — and he could fairly have thought so — perhaps he should have declined to participate.

  4. Stella

    Only error in judgment Colbert made was showing up. Who would want to spend 10 seconds in that company?

  5. Anonymous

    Alkali, I’m sorry, but if you really are not a supporter of President Bush, or even if you are, that comment makes no sense. The meaningful difference is that literally spitting in someone’s face is a physical assault. Colbert used words.

  6. Sven

    it would also have been uncomfortable if Colbert had spat in Bush’s face KING LEAR: Dost thou call me fool, boy?FOOL: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.

  7. Anonymous

    If Colbert wanted to make people uncomfortable, a fart would have saved everyone 10 minutes.

  8. Anonymous

    Let’s see what an “artiste” Colbert is when it starts to cost him money from Comedy Central. Pissed off people tend to get off therir asses and write letters.

  9. Anonymous

    Since when, has anger not been an element in comedy? Colbert isn’t a stand-up Las Vegas type comic. He’s an Ali G-type comic actor, who stresses irony. We are going to pay for 2 generations for this presidency. If Bush is made to feel uncomfortable for an evening ,so be it. He can go home and look at those flight-suit pictures and fell upbeat again.

  10. Anonymous

    Two observations:- If this Colbert performance had been delivered in the first couple of years of 43’s tenure, it wouldn’t have been regarded as excessive or insulting. “Things” have been building up, reaching an unavoidably pressurized level, with unrelenting criticism in the face of continuing and mounting blunders.Many have been saying the same tart jokes for long, often more bitterly and acidly, but now, the chronic low approval ratings and mounting criticism from all quarters and obvious failure in many facets don’t afford as easy of a brushoff; it is the reality that hurts. Literally. I remember Leno saying some biting things and so did the prez himself, mocking himself looking for WMDs under chairs and desks. He himself could not do it today, a couple of years removed from that period where he was stronger in the public eye.So, no, Stephen was not insulting or excessive. He just wasn’t accomodating. It is the same shtick he does everyday and is not tons of degrees from what is usual for/from him.What is insulting is the push to censor and muzzle artists or journalist to speak their mind to mollify low approval-rating- personalities.It is utterly dishonest and delusional to say it wasn’t funny. You may disagree with and dislike it, but funny, it was. Sorry. Truth is often uncomfortable.2- I have to give credit to the president for how gracious he handled himself after Stephen was done. I read in many corners that Mr Bush wasn’t smiling at or courteous to him at the handshake moment. That seemed to be untrue. The Prez was very polite and warmly smiling, albeit an uncomfortable smil. It was Stephen who seemed to not be as courteous back with a lame handshake and trying to zoom past him. I saw it almost as an insult. Colbert probably did not want to be seen as kssing up to him after delivering an uncomfortable piece. He rushed past the Prez and First Lady to embrace Thomas. He tried to make a point there too and came off looking bad.SO in my book, one point for Colbert for the skit and one point for the Prez for a gracious parting move.N.

  11. Anonymous

    To my first point, I missed to say that even if the press corp disagrees with this President’s actions, even has disdain for him at times, they still paradoxically have a certain level of affection and respect for him. They don’t want to be seen relishing the moent and basking in his misery. That explains the squirming from the “liberal” media. We know why his supporters were squirming.It was the right thing to do: it would have been very unclassy to luagh outloud given the situation of the country and the amiable softspoken of the President’s demanor, agree or disagree with him.I think they feel bad for him more than anything else.I can’t point one more period that was more awkward and morphing for the WH press corps in a long time. The advent of CNN 24-hour cable news changed a lot. What’s happening now to the WH-press relationship is on an even deeper level.N.

  12. Anonymous

    Colbert assured his legend with this performance. His satirical approach in general is extremely sophisticated, and I applaud you, Dan, for taking it seriously with as well as for your Kaufman comparison.Like Kaufman, Colbert’s satire forces you to see that there’s a lot to be uncomfortable about, and that whatever level of comfort we have is based on illusions. Unlike Kaufman, Colbert’s satire is timely and is truly giving voice to the concerns and point of view of those who find themselves alienated by the status quo political and media regimes.It should be no surprise that so many in the established order don’t get what he’s doing. But people are going to have to take notice, because his most loyal audience comprises young people. To many college students and twenty-somethings, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are like rock stars–they represent what Dylan represented to another generation.Especially Colbert. After his brilliant and courageous performance, there can be little doubt that there are some who “get” him and some who don’t; the battle lines are being drawn. I truly believe that Colbert represents an important cultural moment and that lots of people, like the New York Times, which is too busy writing about Bruce Springsteen, don’t and probably can’t realize it.Cheers,A loyal reader in Chicago

  13. Anonymous

    to the anon above talking about sending letters to Comedy Central, thanks for reminding me. I’ll be sure to drop them an email thanking them for employing Colbert and Jon Stewart and letting them know I tune in every night.

  14. R Legro

    I applauded Colbert’s performance, but his critics are strangely bicameral in their thinking. After all, just before Colbert went up there and made fun of Bush’s low approval ratings, BUSH HIMSELF went up there and did the same thing. Are we supposed to think that Bush therefore innoculated himself against criticism? My advice to the assembled opinion leaders of the Beltway, based on a concept by Harry S Truman. If you can’t stand the heat, go hide in the kitchen.

  15. Neil

    r legro, the heat comes from the kitchen! You get out of the kitchen to get away from it, not… oh, you’re kidding! Fool me once, shame on uh…Arguments about whether Colbert’s performance was funny (hasn’t happened in this thread but elsewhere) miss the point, since humor, esp political humor, is subjective. Those who make this argument are perfectly aware of that I think but do it because it’s easier than discussing his real point because that would require introspection rather than glib bombast.It wasn’t meant to be funny in the Henny Youngman sense. It was theater similar to say, Waiting for Godot. Nobody complains that Godot isn’t “funny”. Instead it conveys its dark message by means of a deeper more troubling level of humor. The blowhard Colbert character is merely the “delivery mechanism” for the message that the media no longer guards the gates but instead has agreed to play lapdog to this admin, in return for yummy treats.

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