Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Colbert Rings On....

Article published May 9, 2006
Katy Burns
Who's afraid of Stephen Colbert?
Monitor columnist

Well, the proletariat legions of AOL subscribers - overwhelmingly clicking "yes"- have voted: Stephen Colbert was funny. Veryfunny.

So take that, you inside-the-Beltway snobs - er, movers and shakers and Very Important People - who developed bad cases of the vapors when the Comedy Central faux talk show guy addressed the illustrious White House Correspondents Association's annual dinner.

Colbert paid a satirical tribute to famously sheltered President Bush and the elite Washington press corps (and assorted celebrity groupies) who had gathered in full formal plumage for a mutually celebratory salute to their own awesomeness. So many important people, having such a nice time together - that's how it usually goes at such clubby events in the cloisters of our nation's capital city.

But this time things went awry, and both Colbert's bravura performance and its effect on his audience are now in endless reruns, with passionate commentary by the rude masses, in cyberspace. Welcome to the unsettling - and noisy - business of "news" in the 21st century.

Colbert is a comic actor who, in his ColbertReport four nights a week, satirizes basic cable's egotistical know-it-all blowhards, especially humor-impaired bullyboy Bill O'Reilly.

As should have occurred to those who invited him to address the well-fed and well-lubricated audience, Colbert brought his dimwitted rightwing persona to the podium. As a loyal "fan" of Bush, he heaped mock praise on the prez, who was seated just a few feet away on the dais.

At first it was a bit mild. Then it got more biting: "Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent 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. . . .

"I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only forthings, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message that, no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world. . . .

"He's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will."

By then, Bush's face was red, his jaws tight. Laura Bush stared daggers at the comedian. Many in the audience, there to wallow in innocuous bonhomie, were increasingly uncomfortable. And that was before Colbert turned his laser on them:

"Over the last five years" he said cheerfully, "you people were so good over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times. . . .

"Let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The president makes decisions; he's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know -fiction."

Saved by the web

By now a lot of the famous faces in the crowd were stony.

Colbert went on to skewer John McCain, Jesse Jackson, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia - safe targets all - but by then many in the room of bruised superegos were having none of it. Except, interestingly, for Scalia, who laughed uproariously when Colbert saluted him with mock obscene gestures, much like those Scalia himself had made a few weeks back to a reporter.

Afterward, the powers-that-be dealt with the awfulness of it all, the rudeness, by ignoring the story altogether. Even in the lofty paper of record, the New York Times, Colbert's role at the dinner was a non-event. But an unruly cyberspace crew had found its cause, and in no time blogs and webzines were posting links to Colbert's routine and sneering at the insiders who didn't want to acknowledge the man had even been there.

Wounded, Washington's elite press corps regrouped. Almost to a man or woman, they whined that he just hadn't been funny. These were the same folks who thought it hilarious at another journalist-and-politician love-fest a few years ago when George W. Bush turned his own inability to find WMDs in Iraq into a ham-handed comedy routine.

By week's end, major players, including the august Times, were playing catch-up, backing into the story by reporting on the reaction in cyberspace. Colbert was delighting in the mainstream media's irritation at his startling refusal to play a safe insider's game.

And around the rest of the country, a lot of uncool nobodies were typing "Colbert White House" into Google and reveling at the riches unearthed, especially the sight of a comedian, for heaven's sake, calling powerful, pretentious people to task.

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)


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