Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Rules of (Comedic) Engagement

As I listen to conservative pundits, members of the mainstream media, and Bush aides criticize Stephen Colbert for being “unfunny” at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I can’t help but think about how the French seemed to find Jerry Lewis hilarious, even though many Americans cannot stand him.

Perhaps part of the reason is that, in France, there may be very few people who actually look like this:

However, during a typical trip to my local Costco, I can count on seeing any number of people who would make the "nutty professor" blend into the crowd.

My point is that humor is relative, and often those who find it most funny are the ones who don’t look like the butt of the jokes. This report relays the perspective of Bush aides who apparently walked out on Colbert’s presentation:
Aides and reporters, however, said that it did not overshadow Bush's own funny routine, which featured an impersonator who told the audience what Bush was thinking when he spoke dull speech lines. In fact, some aides crowed over reports that the president easily bested Colbert in the reviews of both comedy acts.
Easily Bested? That’s certainly relative. I would also guess that Bush’s fraternity brothers would have considered Shakespearean comedies to have been “easily bested” by a guy lighting farts with a book of matches! Or a guy making fun of a fat girl! Or of gay male cheerleaders (well, maybe not when George was around!)

There are all kinds of audiences for comedy, and very few rules apply when it comes to the task of trying to make others laugh. As a comedian, you choose your style and your audience, and then you Git-R-Done (yes, there are even some people who find that line funny!)

Colbert has his audience, and they (we) love him! Unfortunately for Bush and the members of the White House Press Corps, whomever decided to invite him to speak at this dinner was oblivious to the customary style of his act. Consequently the White House Correspondents’ Dinner became historic entertainment for much of the country, just not for those in the room! And I say, screw em! Colbert was hilarious!

But one conservative blogger chose to put it like this:
There were two problems with Colbert's act. The first is that it wasn't funny, and the second was that it didn't keep with the spirit of the evening. The Correspondents Dinner prides itself on making the evening a safe venue for all, and the humor is supposed to stay self-deprecating. Attacking one's opponents in this forum is considered bad manners. Colbert has no grasp of his audience or the event, and he paid the price for it.
Clearly, this view is one where Colbert crossed over some imaginary line of decorum. Which brings me back to Jerry Lewis. If a comedian were to do a “nutty professor” style routine making the butt of the jokes an audience member with a mental handicap and extremely poor dental care, it would be mean-spirited and clearly over the line. It isn’t funny to make fun of someone solely for his or her appearance. Although crossed occasionally by thoughtless amateurs, any civilized, professional comedian would avoid crossing that line. I suppose it could be thought of as one of the Geneva Conventions of comedy.

But Colbert didn’t even approach that line. He offered satire - and the target of his jokes was the behavior of members of the audience, not their appearance. Mocking behavior is at the very heart of satire! When it comes to audience behavior, anything goes. Contrary to the opinion of his critics, Colbert had the live audience firmly in his grasp, even if it was a different audience – his real audience – that he was actually playing to.

When you choose to behave in a way that opens yourself up to being satirized, and you are offended when it happens, it says less about the quality of the humor than it says about your own insecurities regarding your behavior!


  1. Great analysis seenos. I read one comedians take on the evening as a classic "playing to the back of the room" moment. When you could care less about the immediate audience play to the comics in the back waiting to go on later. Or in this case his regular fans - us.

    I thought it was hilarious and a tremendous performance.

    Bravo Mr. Colbert

  2. Colbert is, hand's down, the funniest man in television today.

    And no, I don't hate Jerry Lewis because I look like him!

  3. One more thing. For those in attendance who say that they were offended by Colbert's performance - I am more offended by your willingness to go have a big party with the "men" and "woman" who are responsible for all the shit that this country is in. Your ability to just brush it aside, have a catered meal and hope to listen to some lame one-liners is exactly the problem that Colbert's sattire is pointing out.

  4. I've seen a lot of roasts in my life on TV and they can get pretty low and rough. Kennedy was famous for laughing along with the rest and that's the usual way.

    But Bush....? His thin skin speaks volumes.

  5. Giraffe6:25 AM

    Helen Thomas really got in the act on this one. When they asked him to the event, hadn't they ever watched his show? I'd sure like to see it again.

  6. Lost Wages Joe1:06 PM

    Thanks for providing that link to the transcript, seenos. I've been reading about Colbert's routine for a couple of days; now I finally know what all the fuss is about. No surprise that the audience was offended; neither Bush-Co nor their lapdogs in "the Press" are known for their senses of humor, particularly in regard to their own glaringly obvious shortcomings. Also no surprise that they didn't see it coming. They didn't see the breached levies in New Orleans coming, either... All in all, I'd say that the bit was pretty damn funny, and pretty damn ballsy.

    Too bad it's not getting played on network TV, where the unwashed masses might get exposed to it. No offense; I've been an exposed, unwashed mass myself on more than one occaision (try not to picture it).