Monday, May 01, 2006


The Report on Colbert: Unfunny

Peter Daou and Chris Durang are frustrated and incensed at the media for ignoring Stephen Colbert's ascerbic routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

They chalk it up to the (in their view) compliant MSM and its preference for buying into the preferred conservative view of politics:

The media's ignoring Colbert's effect at the White House Correspondents Dinner is a very clear example of what others have called the media's penchant for buying into the conservative/rightwing "narrative."

In this instance, the "narrative" is that President Bush, for all his missteps, has a darling sense of humor and is a real regular guy, able to poke delightful fun at himself and his penchant for mis-using and mispronouncing words.
You know, there may indeed be some of that. However, there are two other things going on here: Bush put on a very funny skit with this "Double-ya" Stephen Bridges and -- far more importantly -- Stephen Colbert, there's not polite way to say this, simply sucked.

He had a funny line about "the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq." And the joke about Washington, DC, as "The chocolate city with a marshmallow center...a mallomar..." was good.

The rest was really forgettable: What should have been an applause line -- "Misery accomplished" -- just bombed because his timing was off. He admitted to blowing the set-up of his "glass half-empty" joke about polling. And then, the ridiculous clip at the end where he is supposed to be the new White House press secretary being stalked by a vigilant Helen Thomas? Huh?

I say this not as an ideologue. I am someone who has enough of an appreciation of popular culture that I will praise good art/entertainment whether I agree with the political or philosophical view point expressed.

I loved NWA's Straight Outta Compton, though I don't necessarily ascribe to the notion of takin niggaz out with a flurry of buckshots or doing whatever it was with the police.

As I wrote Friday, I like the
new Neil Young album. I think Bill Maher has managed to keep himself funny while being explicitly political. On the contrary, Dennis Miller, who I once loved became supremely unfunny when he tried to transform himself into a part-time spokesman for the Bush administration.

Colbert was awful because -- to use a sports metaphor -- he didn't have a second pitch. His schtick on The Colbert Report is to be a pompous faux right-wing/populist talk show host, an ersatz Bill O'Reilly. And it works in a one-on-one setting for half an hour, regardless of whether the other "one" is the camera, or whomever is the guest foil.

At the March Oscar telecast, Colbert's mentor and former boss, Jon Stewart, realized that he had to do something that would be clearly his personality -- and what people tuned into -- but also recognize that the audience was very different than on The Daily Show. As
noted at the time:
Jon Stewart was a great host -- perhaps the most "normal-guy" host since the late, great, Johnny Carson.

Balanced hugging Hollywood with well-timed pricks of its elitist sensibility. Best line: After a lenghty series of clips showing Hollywood "message" movies, Stewart dead-panned., "And after all of that, all of those problems have been solved."

Next best line: "For those keeping track--Martin Scorsese, no Oscars; 3-6 Mafia [raucus winners of "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp" as Best Song], one Oscar."
On Stewart's own show, the target are the pretentious politicians running Washington, DC (majority Republican at this point in time) -- so they are the main targets of his barbs.

At the Academy Awards, the pretentious ones are the actors and directors (majority liberal Democrats), so they got their share from Stewart -- and rightly so.

As Bill Kristol discovered
to his regret, in the natural one-on-one setting of his own show, Colbert can be simply devastating:

Colbert: Speaking of thinking alike, you were a member, or are a member of the New Project for the American Century, correct?

Kristol: I am.

Colbert: Were or am, am?

Kristol: Were and am.

Colbert: How's that project coming?

Kristol: well. it's..(stammering)

Colbert: How's the New American Century, looks good to me?

Kristol: Ahh--I think...hehe yea--I'm speechless..

Colbert: Really?

Kristol: Yea...we've sort of...the Project for the New American
Century is just a few people..

Colbert: Come on, it’s a terrific New American Century, right?

Kristol: Well I think we do OK.

Colbert: You Rummy Wolfowitz, Cheney, Pearle, Feith, all you guys right?

Kristol (responds timidly): Well, we fought back after 9/11..

Unfair? Very much so.

But, really, really funny (even more so when you see the video).

But, the point is -- there has to be a foil, a "straight man"to help put the vacuous boorishness of the Colbert persona in context. Without the foil, the character isn't nearly as interesting. Imagine Ali G trying to do a stand-up monologue at the White House Correspondents' dinner and you'll get an idea as to why the character "Stephen Colbert" (as opposed to the real comic, Stephen Colbert) doesn't translate too well beyond the enclosed confines of his own TV show.

Ironically, for two years in a row now, George W. Bush has recognized his own limitations when it comes to "performing" at this dinner. Last year, he gave it over to Laura for her hilarious "Desperate Housewives" schtick (which was so good that comic Cedric The Entertainer admitted he was going to have a tough time following). This year, the "Double-ya" bit was a great bit of theater. Indeed, he arguably stole a page from "The Colbert Report": He set himself up as his own comedic foil.

Stephen Bridges played "George W. Bush" in the same way that Stephen Colbert plays a pompous talk-show host named "Stephen Colbert" who interviews "real" people in politics. Bridges was successful, because he brought along a "real" person ready and willing to take part in the joke.

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