On humor and Stephen Colbert

I’ve been thinking lately about Stephen Colbert’s uneven performance and audience reaction at the this year’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner. (If you haven’t seen it yet the video is still floating around the the Net, though C-Span has their own limited-time Real Media feed and is asking other websites to remove their links.)

I tend to agree with Colbert’s message and politics, but in this post I’m more interested in how humor works and doesn’t work than the message itself. Something I love about both Stephen Colbert and John Stewart is how they’re willing to step outside of their characters and actually analyze what they do as comic, but I think that hurt Colbert that night. Rewatching the video, I still liked Colbert’s message but I thought his performance was just as uneven as the audience’s reaction.

The great part of his act, when it works, is that he plays a Bill O’Reilly type and then either makes plain that type’s underlying messages and underhanded motives or just plays at being inept and catching himself in metaphors that don’t work. But that evening he didn’t seem to convincingly inhabit that character. First he told the joke about “somebody shoot me in the face,” which cast him as a comic telling jokes rather than as an inept pundit. That could have been OK, since he hadn’t really started, but I think the killer was when he messed up his “the glass isn’t half empty, it’s 2/3 empty” joke. I thought he was quite respectful by saying “it’s important, Mr. President, to set up your jokes correctly…” but that joke was a pivotal one — it was the joke that would have both cemented his beginning rant about how great Bush was and that set himself up as being incompetent about his attempted praises. As it was, he was suddenly seen as a comic again, just as he was about to launch into the really biting part of his act where he lashed out against the press itself. Suddenly his mask was stripped away and instead of playing The Fool in the guise of an overly harsh pundit he became a Stephen Colbert speaking in a fighting-words tone and lecturing the press on how they should behave. Still ballsy of him, still something that needs to be said… but for me and I think that audience it lost a lot of the humor it could have had.