Home / Wit vs. Humor: Why Stephen Colbert’s Performance Was Masterful

Wit vs. Humor: Why Stephen Colbert’s Performance Was Masterful

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Even though Stephen Colbert is being showered with well-deserved praise for his masterful performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, I think something crucial needs to be emphasized — the sheer nerve of it. Imagine if Jonathan Swift had gone into the king’s court and read A Modest Proposal aloud to the assembled nobles (“Are you suggesting we are cannibals, Dr. Swift?”) and you get the idea.

It’s one thing to march into the lion’s den and yank a fistful of hairs from his mane. It’s quite another to march into a den full of people who think they’re lions and rub their noses in the fact that they’re nothing more than fat, spayed tabby cats who are less interested in exposing the powerful than they are in curling up by their feet.

That’s what Stephen Colbert did at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and for his perfidy he will now be subject to their endless mewling and kitty-kat clawing. Even if he loses his nerve and backtracks with an apology — something I don’t think for a second he would actually do — he will always be their target. After all, the eunuchs of the court were often the most devious and vengeful of the players surrounding the king.

Uberblogger Matt Drudge is arching his back and hissing that Colbert’s ratings aren’t as high as the Faux News evening lineup — a pretty sad line of attack, but there will be others. The master narrative now taking shape around that scalding evening is that Colbert the professional comedian got hardly any laughs, while Bush and his doppelganger rocked the house with boffo guffaws. Of course he did! This is, after all, the same crowd that whooped and chuckled a couple of years ago as Bush showed slides and pretended to look for weapons of mass destruction under the furniture. Their laughter is a badge of dishonor. Courting their praise was never Colbert’s goal.

In his book Paradigms Lost, John Simon points out that humor and wit are nearly polar opposites. Humor is inclusive: it invites everyone to join in on the laugh and feel like one of the crowd. Wit is exclusive: it addresses itself only to those who are in the know, and if the other people in the room feel uncomfortable because they don’t get it — hey, that’s a bonus. Colbert’s performance was a display of wit at its most lethally cutting. He went into a room with the most powerful man in the world and his courtiers, and he excluded them from the land of the free and the home of the brave.

If the White House courtiers had an ounce of self-respect, they’d all book a flight to Alaska, find a good-sized ice floe and shove themselves out into the ocean. Instead, they’ll just go about their routines. They may walk funny for a little while, after the way they’ve been used, but after six years of covering the Bush administration, they’re probably accustomed to that kind of thing.

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About Steven Hart

  • Cleve

    The ripples from Colbert’s routine are still resounding; people are still digesting what really happened, particularly those that were part of the joke themselves.

    I thought it was a masterful bit of satire myself. It was a blistering and relentless assault, not merely on the President, but on the absurd dance between the administration and the mainstream press and the way they legitimize eachother. And he did it in a way that really provides no possible retort. Much like his show.

    Of course he lost the room almost immediately, but they were never his audience. The one moment of sincerity in the routine was his line: “I have nothing but contempt for these people [gestures to audience]” And everyone knew it. *We* were the audience.

    I could come up with a few critiques. I thought he missed some opportunites on energy; that “mesquite-powered car” bit seemed weak given the ample ammunition this Presidents oil ties and energy policies provide. I also thought the Thomas skit dragged a bit.

    But the specific material wasn’t the real humor. The beauty of it was watching that room full of parasites squirm for 20 minutes under an overpowering glare of unapologetic satirical truths, and on that front Colbert delivered in absolute spades. This was one for the history books.

  • AFAIC, Colbert is a hero who brought truth to power, if only for one night. That guy has serious guts. I pray he refuses to apologize. And I doubt he would do such a horrible thing.

  • M4532v

    If you would like to thank Mr. Colbert, you can contribute to the 40,000 that have already done so

  • Would have been much better if that damn press sec’y video didn’t drag on.

    He didn’t speak from the gut, like he said. He spoke from the balls.

  • Balls. Something Washington polticians and mainstream press folk alike lack completely. We got what we deserved, America. Unless we take the government bull by the horns and start reacting at the polls it will be business as usual throughout this land. The decline and fall of the United States of America is in progress. We have the power to stem the tide before it is too late.

  • “We got what we deserved, America.”

    Perhaps you did. Somehow, I doubt that.

  • drD

    Colbert is a hero

  • Buck Rutledge

    He not only slayed the giants, he flayed them…and all in a span of thirty minutes. The Roman satirist Juvenal lives again!

  • synykyl

    Well said. Stephen was not telling jokes, he was throwing darts. And he didn’t fall flat, he drew blood.

  • This is one of the best summations I’ve seen in an ocean of ’em. Thanks Mr. H.

    …although I do like the “went over as well as Martin Luther King speaking at a gathering of the KKK” line, too.

  • Re: Matthew Sussman

    Yep, the audition tape gag definitely went on too long, but Helen Thomas was long overdue for some props. The Bushies did everything they could to belittle and marginalize her, and too many other reporters went along with it. I think it was a classy gesture for Colbert to let her in on the action.

  • Harold

    I agree — the inclusion of Helen Thomas as co-actor was chivalrous, noble, and just. As a politcal gesture it lifted the routine above the merely topical and deeply shamed the malefactors.

  • Scott Butki

    Great summary.

  • iceburg

    I loved his whole act, and the Iceburg bit was great. like laugh it up now because your grandchildren won’t know what iceburgs are. His entire rip on everybody was great. I’ll prolly go back to c-span to watch it again. Colbert Rocks!

  • RogerMDillon

    Mr Hart, In “Truthiness”? – Stephen Colbert and Comedy as Political Argument Barger attempts to call you out although he misinterpreted what your fine piece was about. I pointed it out to him, but he ignored it, which he usually does when he’s wrong.

  • Roger M. Dillon: Thanks for the note. I probably would have missed that post entirely without your alert. Not that I was missing much.