Something got lost in the blogosphere referendum this week on whether or not Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert was rudely unfunny in front of President Bush during the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner: The red carpet was awesome.
I’m talking rapper Ludacris, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, outed CIA operative Valerie Plame, Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- all of God’s showbiz creatures coming through the revolving door last Saturday night at the Washington Hilton. It put the Oscars and Golden Globes to shame, and the fact that the festivities were televised by C-SPAN meant no red carpet Seacrest, no Hatcher -- just a disembodied male voice who would break in to say: “Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his wife...”
As awards show coverage, you could really appreciate C-SPAN’s less-is-more aesthetic -- the Steadicam, the deference to an event’s natural sound. Then came the reactions: Colbert skewered, Colbert lionized, Colbert’s performance as keynote comedian dissected as daring or unfunny.
The afterlife of Colbert’s appearance is partly a TV-via-the-Internet thing; what has been talked about all week is less a shared TV experience like the Oscars than a passed-around link. I mean, what kind of loser is home on a Saturday night watching C-SPAN?
Some of the assessment of Colbert’s appearance is based, then, on the Web clip and not the whole (C-SPAN has reportedly ordered the popular video site YouTube to take down the excerpt, claiming copyright infringement, though it is available via other links).
To watch it all was to sit there, with growing curiosity, to see not what Colbert would say but how “The Colbert Report” host would play as the climax of a Hollywood/Beltway (Beltwood?) schmooze in which the White House press corps gets uncomfortably close with the president over dinner and drinks.
It’s an odd -- ad absurdum, some have said -- embrace in which adversaries become photo-op pals, and Peter Pace is in the hizzy. As such, it’s an evening requiring a dance of decorum, even from the comedian traditionally on the dais to roast the president. For the comic it’s akin to a corporate date -- those private gigs that big-name comedians like Seinfeld or Leno or Rock take to perform for a stiffened group of business elites, in a ballroom. It can be a minefield, a room full of colleagues watching to see if the CEO deems it OK to laugh.
“I believe that the government that governs best is the government that governs least -- and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq,” Colbert said near the beginning of his act. It got a laugh, but you could sense things turning by the time he reached this line about Bush: “He stands for things -- not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares.”
There is rage in that line, as there is an anger in the character Colbert plays on his show--a fatuous Fox News-type demagogue-cum-newsman and a Bush-backer, the satire embedded in the arched eyebrow and gleam in his eye as he dismisses the so-called “fact-based” crowd as liberal “fact-a-nistas.”
Stripped of his Comedy Central studio audience -- where every laugh line gets a roar, each subtly raised eyebrow inherently understood as a counter-culture dig -- Colbert was a comedian in context but out of his element at the correspondent’s dinner. He was Jon Stewart at the Oscars, without his in-studio constituency, or Chris Rock dissing Jude Law in the second row. Colbert -- who, like Stewart, draws politicos and journos on his show, people unsure how to co-opt this culture-within-a-culture -- was performing three feet from the president, whose body language and tight facial expressions recalled his first debate with John Kerry.
Also on display was the yawning chasm between a niche cable comedy show and the most powerful man in the world. The audience had been less conflicted laughing at the act before Colbert -- President Bush himself, appearing alongside Bush impersonator Steve Bridges.
Bridges is a “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” regular and Bush impersonator in facial prosthetics, with writers; not insignificantly, he has an apparently thriving business of corporate dates. Among his clients, notes Greg Beato in a profile of Bridges in the Rake, a Minneapolis monthly, are the Republican Eagles, “a super-elite Republican National Committee group of the party’s most generous donors.”
The Bridges-Bush routine, then, was sanctioned if not vetted -- jokes about the President’s penchant for malapropisms and Vice President Cheney’s hunting escapades.
“Bridges offers an apolitical Bush,” Beato writes in his profile, “which, while it may be unintentional, is a stroke of political genius. Divorced from actual experience, the president’s charm goes on the offensive again. Campaign-trail Bush reemerges, and it’s 1999 in America, a return to the peace and prosperity of that era.”
Bush left room, at the end of the sketch, to say in all seriousness: “I got one more thing I want to share with you on my mind, something that’s never far from my mind. God bless our troops, God bless the cause of freedom, and God bless America.”
Applause, applause. And now, ladies and gentlemen, the bone-dry satire of Stephen Colbert.On the phone Wednesday, Bill Maher, host of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” didn’t express much interest when asked if he was going to talk about the Colbert debate on his show tonight. Nor had he seen Colbert’s appearance, though he could intuit it as another corporate date in which the edgy comic invariably ends up offending the very folks who brought him in to lend edginess to an otherwise politically correct evening.
Maher appeared at the correspondents dinner during the Clinton years and vaguely recalled running afoul of the comedy police for a joke about then-Texas Sen. Phil Graham’s wife.
“I remember sitting in my backyard with ‘Access Hollywood,’ or whoever it was,” he said.
This week, it was the Web that crackled. Still, as Maher sees it, the rules of engagement -- lend us a panache of cool, make us laugh, but don’t offend us -- haven’t much changed.
“I’m telling you,” Maher said of the dinner, “they should get a juggler.”