Stephen Colbert's Correspondents' Dinner routine.

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May 2 2006 6:23 PM

Dinner Theater

Why Stephen Colbert didn't bomb in D.C.

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Stephen Colbert At The White House Correspondents Dinner. Click image to expand.
Stephen Colbert

So, I'm sitting there watching the online video of Stephen Colbert's performance at Saturday night's White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Colbert looked excellent in his tux, and he was doing his usual shtick—playing a know-it-all know-nothing of the Bill O'Reilly school—with the usual aplomb. And just as Colbert is making his segue into a pre-taped skit documenting his "audition" for Tony Snow's new job—"I think I would have made a fabulous press secretary. I have nothing but contempt for these people"—there's an audience shot capturing the face of my ex-girlfriend. She's a D.C. lawyer who loves the silliness of Monty Python, who used to read The Nation in the bath, and who, I think, named her new dog after Howard Dean. In other words, she ought to have been cracking up at Colbert's absurdist satire and meaningful snark. Instead, as the comedian aimed vicious blows at the president, I mostly read nervous concern in her eyes. The air in that room must have had a weird and very rare charge.

The night's best reaction shots confirmed this. Here's a jiggling Justice Scalia giggling like a schoolgirl. Here's a military man not quite disciplined enough to stifle his grin at a crack—decent but not first-rate—on the Secretary of Defense: "See who we've got here tonight. Gen. Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff. Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They still support Rumsfeld. Right, you guys aren't retired yet, right?" In the immediate wake of Colbert's most brutal line ("I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares."), the president of the United States wore, on his peeved lips, an expression that you usually see only in the instant before a bar fight. But half a minute later, when the topic turned to the First Marriage ("Obviously loves his wife, calls her his better half. And polls show America does, too"), the president had regained his composure and was the picture of jolliness. Not so the trio of Washington wives the camera next cut to. Their faces showed varying degrees of disgust, and it looked like all three of them were trying to hide under their shawls.

Who did they think they were getting, Mark Russell? (Actually, they may not have known who they were getting; the emcee was clueless enough, when introducing the headliner, to pronounce the final T in The Colbert Report. Square.) You hire a good political satirist, you get good political satire, which is necessarily dangerous. So, when the Washington Post's "Reliable Source" column speaks of the "consensus" that the routine "fell flat" and New York Daily News gossip—and "Reliable Source" alumnus—Lloyd Grove writes that Colbert "bombed badly," they are offering meaningless reportage. Pop Dadaist that he is, Colbert wasn't bombing so much as freaking his audience out for his own enjoyment.

Colbert deserves to be judged on his own terms: He shouldn't haven't stolen one good joke from his own show ("Next time, look it up in your gut") and another from Jon Stewart's Oscar intro ("McClellan, of course, eager to retire. Really felt like he needed to spend more time with Andrew Card's children."). The "audition tape" segment was at least 90 seconds too long, although the Colbert rapport with Helen Thomas was good enough that the two ought to be considering a sitcom. In general, though, he was brilliant—perfectly daffy and gutsy, as in the line that earned what seemed to be the crowd's biggest laugh. Colbert spoke of interviewing Jesse Jackson: "You can ask him anything, but he's going to say what he wants, at the pace that he wants. It's like boxing a glacier. Enjoy that metaphor, by the way, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is."

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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