Speaking Truthiness to Power

by Henry Farrell on April 30, 2006

“Crooks and Liars”:http://www.crooksandliars.com/2006/04/29.html#a8104 has the video of Colbert at the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner.

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ktheory.com » Blog Archive » Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondence Dinner
04.30.06 at 7:01 pm



Don Quijote 04.30.06 at 10:04 am

That was brutal, I almost felt sorry for George Bush.

Loved the line about the Hindenberg, pratically fell out of my chair.


tianyi 04.30.06 at 10:08 am

The whole thing better quality in three parts on YouTube.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3


abb1 04.30.06 at 12:54 pm

The Hindenburg line was good, but overall – is it really that good? Colbert is overrated, he should’ve stayed with Stewart.


Iron Lungfish 04.30.06 at 1:06 pm

Colbert is overrated, he should’ve stayed with Stewart.

Are you serious? Colbert’s show outshines Stewarts fairly regularly.


goatchowder 04.30.06 at 2:27 pm

I don’t do YouTube, unfortunately it requires Flash and I’ve banned Flash from my system. Is there any version of this in a slightly more free, less-proprietary format, i.e. mp4?


abb1 04.30.06 at 3:34 pm

You think? I guess the shows I downloaded weren’t the best ones.


Iron Lungfish 04.30.06 at 4:31 pm

You think? I guess the shows I downloaded weren’t the best ones.

While I still like Stewart a lot, Colbert’s routine allows him to cut loose as wildly as he likes at any target he chooses, while Stewart’s straight man act almost necessarily holds him back (to the point where he’s developed a bit of a “pox on both their houses” itch he scratches a little too often). That said, Colbert obviously works better on his own show than he does here (where he’s essentially just doing stand-up, minus his usual assortment of visuals and bullet-point gags, to say nothing of the hostile audience).


P O'Neill 04.30.06 at 4:38 pm

“Hindrocket” supplies the unintentional comedy

The big news story was that the featured comedian, someone named Steve Colbert, apparently bombed. He did a virulently anti-Bush routine that got few laughs. Hot Air has good footage of both routines; you can judge for yourself who was funnier.

I wasn’t surprised by this, inasmuch as I’d never heard of Steve Colbert, and it’s been a long time since a heard a political humorist who was very funny. Comedians, in general, don’t seem very funny to me nowadays.


Stephen M (Ethesis) 04.30.06 at 5:14 pm

Here I was thinking that you were really following up the China discussions (since all the comments are closed on them) …

That was brutal, I almost felt sorry for George Bush except this is exactly what everyone signed on for by doing this particular event.


Adam Kotsko 04.30.06 at 5:20 pm

I was nervous for him as I watched — I felt like he was going to be detained.

The mainstream media is full of bad people, it seems to me. Bad people don’t have a sense of humor, especially about themselves.


Dan K 04.30.06 at 5:59 pm

In a post-ironic world, you have to do satire straight. Nobody does satire straighter than Colbert at the moment. He has the perfect persona: a fake talk show host that reveals truth by carefreely admitting to prefer truthiness. It is sometimes funny, but always uncomfortable, and sometimes deeply so. This time it wasn’t funny at all, and that was precisely the point.


tianyi 04.30.06 at 6:29 pm

But if you read the press or watch cable the story of the night was Bush’s humility in taking part in his own skit prior to Colbert’s, lampooning himself viciously to the tune of “sometimes I don’t speak proper. huh huh.”

Colbert just gets a name check.


Minivet 04.30.06 at 7:09 pm

I thought that:

a) Colbert’s routine at the Dinner was somewhat inferior to his show. I’m not quite able to articulate why. Some of it was more ham-handed, like the “Hindenburg” line. (Commonly Colbert leaves the simpler gags to the side-text in the Word segment.)

b) Nevertheless, it got a worse reception than it deserved. The audience seemed more amused in their faces than in their laughter volume. Probably he was making them too uncomfortable. (Viz. Scalia, his mouth closed, arms folded, rocking forward and back in ostensible laughter.)

c) Some are saying it was too one-sided against Bush, where usually the acts devote some time to lampooning the press. In truth he went against the press, but for supporting Bush unduly rather than for wronging him.


Jon H 04.30.06 at 7:16 pm

I actually thought Scalia was genuinely laughing, and I can see him enjoying Colbert’s reference to the recent kerfuffle.

The crowd reaction shots seemed to show people covering their mouths, as if trying to conceal and restrain their mirth.

Overall, I get the impression that the Washington press corps’ reaction is “why yes, we gossip about all this stuff all the time, and we know it’s all true, but it’s just gauche to bring it up in public” nevermind that the issues at hand are not romantic peccadillos or hygeine problems but fraudulently-launched war, grabs for dictatorial executive power, and general incompetence.


Jim Harrison 04.30.06 at 8:07 pm

It’s no more surprizing that the Washinton Press Corps didn’t like Colbert’s bit than that Bush didn’t appreciate it. Colbert slapped them in the face. The fact that they have obviously earned his rebuke only makes it worse.

The really telling moment in the show occured before Colbert’s appearence when the outgoing President of the Washington journalist organization said that the press are called lap dogs by the left and attack dogs by the right so that “we must be doing something right.” Intellectual bankrupcy and felony vanity.


lev 04.30.06 at 8:48 pm

I thought Colbert wasn’t quite as funny as on his show, but there were a few lines that were much funnier to me than they apparently were to the people sitting there.

I agree that it seemed Scalia was actually laughing, rather than just being polite.

It’s also a thankless task, because the Washington press corps is a little too self-important to let themselves be roasted. Plus, there’s no good way to make fun of the President for having 32% approval while he’s sitting there. Which lends the whole proceeding a slightly uncomfortable tone.


ben wolfson 04.30.06 at 10:23 pm

Torrents, avis, and wmvs linked to here.

I, personally, liked the Plame part best.


Tobias Schwarz 05.01.06 at 12:25 am

Colbert was very good, it must have been one of the toughest writing jobs ever – speaking truth to the power sitting right next to him, while being sufficiently funny not to be taken down by the secret service. Still, I think he was so concerned with truth that it took some of the fun out of his performance. Of course, it’s still a sight to see.

But what the Bush/Bush performance showed once again after the numerous recent hints (I particularly liked his off-the-cuff stand-up show at the SAIS school!) is the guy’s comedic talent. GWB clearly missed his calling. Really, the White House script forces him to play a role (and learn the lines for it) that he just can’t play. And he knows it.

Once he’s out of office, wouldn’t it be great to have a Comedy Central Crossfire Edition Stewart vs Bush? If the offer is good enough, maybe he’d even resign for it?


jonst 05.01.06 at 5:45 am

Who gives a shit about it being funny or not? I am just glad the words were spoken. Out loud. For all to hear. And for future generations to say “hey, someone from this group of whores actually stood up and told the fucking truth”.


Wax Banks 05.01.06 at 5:53 am

The reaction from the Right has been remarkable: among high-profile Rightie pundits, the consensus seems to be that Colbert bombed. Now there’s probably an argument to be made about people of a particular political disposition being unable to appreciate irony, but beyond that, the man was actually pretty goddamn funny a number of times. The line about glaciers played well as the crowd realized they weren’t going to get a Jesse Jackson joke and were caught off-guard; the John McCain crack (about speaking at Bob Jones U.) was vicious but I’d be surprised if Bush et al. even realized why. Then there’s this:

Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.

…which I know is straight off his show but is still both gutsy and funny. And never mind that the line about writing novels of plucky Washington reporters standing up to the Administration – ‘You know, fiction!’ – was over-the-top and obvious; the real audience wasn’t just the nodding yes-men tools present at the talk, but the many many many people who’ve now seen the routine and are talking about it.

I think people are underrating the monologue in large part because there’s no laughter to accompany it – like seeing a film without music or sitcom without laugh track. In front of a different audience I think that routine would have killed, though delivering it to that audience was its point. I laughed aloud several times watching Colbert speak; I’m not sure what people think should have happened.


abb1 05.01.06 at 7:11 am

Who gives a shit about it being funny or not? I am just glad the words were spoken. Out loud. For all to hear.

I don’t understand, I think I’ve heard sharper monologues by Colbert himself, by Jon Stewart, by Stewart’s side-kicks; by Tim Robbins; by Charles Lewis, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn; by Ray McGovern, Scott Ritter, Robert Baer, and by dozens of others.

If being funny doesn’t matter, then what – is this all about the words being uttered specifically at a WH correspondents dinner? Well, who gives a shit about correspondents dinners?


Walt 05.01.06 at 8:04 am

Uh, clearly we do, abb1, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it.


abb1 05.01.06 at 8:19 am

Why, you (or at least some of you) might’ve been talking about it because you thought it was a particularly brilliant performance.


stormy 05.01.06 at 8:43 am

Wax banks

hit part of the problem: The audience was brutally skewered and had a hard time laughing–except for Thomas. The pauses between jabs were met with icy silence.

It is hard to do parody when the facts are the parody.

We are fast closing in on a world that simply is absurd.


Cameron 05.01.06 at 9:58 am

We have reason to care about Colbert speaking the words at that Correspondents’ Dinner because Bush was there. We have reason to believe such content is typically filtered out for him.

Wax Banks is probably correct about both the lack of accompanying laughter and the irrelevance of that lack given Colbert’s presumed point in the context. Colbert is important because he is one of the very few contemporary sources of (popular culture) satire that draws blood. (The Daily Show can do this as well, but Colbert has dropped the “frat boy” humor elements to go for an aggressive parody. Had the correspondents laughed out loud, it would have been largely at their own failures.


ben alpers 05.01.06 at 10:34 am

The audience was brutally skewered and had a hard time laughing—except for Thomas.

Actually, at least three people were shown in reaction shots having a grand old time: Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame (no surprise, I suppose)…and Antonin Scalia, who was guffawing at a joke at his own expense. I suppose we ought to give the guy credit for, at least once, being willing to laugh at himself.


Barbar 05.01.06 at 11:31 am

Why, you (or at least some of you) might’ve been talking about it because you thought it was a particularly brilliant performance.

Also, because his subject matter was his audience. The guy was standing ten feet from Bush, and spoke to him directly; he was addressing a room full of reporters.


DC 05.01.06 at 11:33 am

Surely the subversive element of the performance is undermined to the degree that its targets are NOT discomfited by it and can thus laugh at it, no?

The limited laughter of those inside makes it better for us on the outside. I’d have liked it if he’d finished it off by saying ‘fuck you’ to the president in order to make clear it wasn’t really a joke.


Jack 05.01.06 at 11:40 am

What was the gag about McLellan spending more time with Andrew Card’s children about?

I liked seeing these jokes made in front of the people they were about. Seeing the generals deal was particularly good. I’m sure most of them miss the sharper barbs aimed at them on TV.


Barbar 05.01.06 at 11:49 am

Also awesome: Colbert cracking up while he was benig introduced, slapping the table while hearing about that lame-ass “career-threatening” moment for the guy at the AP.


Jon H 05.01.06 at 12:50 pm

“What was the gag about McLellan spending more time with Andrew Card’s children about?”

I supposee McClellan doesn’t have children of his own?


eweininger 05.01.06 at 1:31 pm

Colbert’s routine at the Dinner was somewhat inferior to his show. I’m not quite able to articulate why.

One simple reason is that on the show, guests have to converse with him. Colbert’s more-knee-jerk-than-thou schtick seems to make that very difficult for most people (self-described liberals and conservatives alike). Kristol recently put his foot firmly in his mouth. The funniest, however, was the conservative senator (from Georgia?) who volubly assented to Colbert’s insistence that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry, but then could only stutter when confronted with the suggestion that, in the interest of “de-gayifying our highways” (or something like that), they should also be prohibited from getting driver’s licenses.


Arthur Davidson Ficke 05.01.06 at 2:20 pm

I think Noam Scheiber at The New Republic sums it up best:

“My sense is that the blogosphere response is more evidence of a new Stalinist aesthetic on the left–until recently more common on the right–wherein the political content of a performance or work of art is actually more important than its entertainment value.”


Bobcat 05.01.06 at 5:06 pm

I love Colbert’s show–along with The Office and Southpartk, I think it’s currently the funniest show on TV (and he and his writers have to make four episodes a week, unlike 22 (The Office) or 16 (Southpark) a year)–, but I didn’t care so much for his performance. I think the problem was that he was too blunt; this is not to say that he wasn’t correct. Only that when someone makes jokes that are more like one-liners from a campaign speech than satire, it comes off as shrill and self-righteous rather than as clever and, well, funny.

My favorite part of his show doesn’t have to do with his interviews with his guests (who often don’t quite know how to react) or “The Word” (which is, I think, the weakest part of the show because the political jokes aren’t subtle in comparison with the jokes on the rest of the show) but rather Colbert’s complete inhabitation of his character and his natural reactions to things. I really suspend disbelief when I hear him, on his show, defend insane propositions (like “truth can be found in the gut”); that is, I really believe that his character believes what he says, which is what makes it so funny.

The problem with unsubtle jokes coming from Colbert (e.g., “she’s trying to figure out why we invaded Iraq!”) is that I lose my ability to believe that his character really believes what he’s saying; the Colbert-qua-blowhard disappears and gets replaced by Stephen Colbert, the actual person, pretending to say things he knows isn’t true. And that doesn’t strike me as very funny.


Barbar 05.01.06 at 8:26 pm

“My sense is that the blogosphere response is more evidence of a new Stalinist aesthetic on the left—until recently more common on the right—wherein the political content of a performance or work of art is actually more important than its entertainment value.”

You missed what Schieber wrote when Bush pretended to look under his desk for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at this same event a couple of years ago:

“My, what brilliant comedy! A powerful man acknoweldges his fallibility — what a light comedic touch! For a moment the peons feel enabled to laugh at the king — Bush is a true maestro of comedy! Of course I could think about what is going right now and get disgusted with both the President and the sycophantic press, but why would I want to let politics interfere with the artistic judgment of a New Republic editor? And anyway, that would be fucking Stalinist.”


Barbar 05.01.06 at 8:29 pm

I don’t think Colbert’s performance was close to the funniest thing I’ve ever seen; it’s not even close to the funniest thing I’ve ever seen him do. But it was pretty funny, and putting things into context it’s really quite priceless.


nick s 05.01.06 at 9:50 pm

It is hard to do parody when the facts are the parody.

Ah, but difficile est saturam non scribere.

As for Colbert, it’s taken him a little while to discover the character, rather like an actor during a run, but I think it’s perhaps a little more suited to Juvenalian times than Stewart’s schlemiel straight man. (And the Bush vs. Bush thing was picked out of the Horatian mode: insider yukyuks.)


abb1 05.02.06 at 1:51 am

…evidence of a new Stalinist aesthetic on the left…

Heh-heh. Now, this is funny. I understand what the fella is trying to say here, but he is expressing it in the exactly Colbertish grotesque manner.

It’s no more ‘Stalinist’ than, say, designing a very affordable very popular automobile is Hitleresque…

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