I have a great respect for professional comedians. What they do is difficult. If you don't think it's hard work, just try standing in front of a large audience sometime, and keep them not only interested in your words, but smiling, laughing, and yearning for more. I have said it before, but stand-up comedy (you, a mic, and an audience) has got to be the most naked and terrifying kind of presentations out there. Even the best pro comedians in the world have their stories of miserable on-stage failures (as do preachers, teachers, etc.). For us regular working professionals, inappropriate or poorly-delivered attempts at humor can severely undermine our talks. In extreme cases, an inappropriate joke at the podium can sabotage our entire speech/presentation and even harm our career. Take a look at this story about one such incident which took place in Scotland a few weeks ago. I cringed just reading about the event.
Satire -- my favorite form of comedy -- is perhaps the most difficult of all as there are always some who will not "get it" or who may indeed get your use of irony and deadpan humor but are offended. Sometimes people are offended because the speaker "crossed the line." Sometimes people are offended because it's simply too painful or threatening to admit the speaker speaks the truth. Still, satire is one of the most effective ways of challenging conventional wisdom and the accepted norms by making them seem absurd. Satire has a long history of course. In the Western world, the style goes at least as far back as ancient Greece. You can even find much satire and irony in ancient Buddhist writings as well.
Stephen Colbert speaks the truth(iness)?
Last week, Stephen Colbert, a comedian in the USA, was the invited "entertainment" for the White House Correspondents' Dinner. This event usually features a popular comedian of the day to "roast" journalist, Washington insiders, the media, and of course the President himself, who is sitting just a few feet away. If you haven't turned on your computer for the past week, you may not know about Stephen Colbert's 20-minute presentation, a speech given completely in character. The "mainstream media" was a bit slow to pick up on the true story of the White House Correspondent's Dinner: Colbert's "tribute" to the President. The blogosphere has been ablaze with talk about Colbert's performance, however. Already, Wikipedia has an entire site dedicated to this one speech by Colbert, a speech Time Magazine Online is calling "the political-cultural touchstone issue of 2006."
Conventional wisdom on presenting says to know your audience and play to the room. By this measure, how did Colbert do? The audience in the room was not always laughing or applauding, yet the response from the much larger audience "out there" in the blogophere continues to be enormous. As more and more conference presentations -- which in the past were rather ephemeral affairs -- are recorded and streamed for the world to see, what does this mean for the rest of us? Are we "playing to the room" before us, or to the much larger room "out there" around the world?
"Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever."
-- Mark Twain
What do you think? Did Colbert "cross the line"? Was he over the top or did he "nail it"? What do you make of his speech? Me? I watched this pundit's coverage of the event and wondered if we had even watched the same speech. I am interested, however, to hear your thoughts after you watch Colbert's presentation.
Colbert's speech followed President Bush's speech, a tough act to follow as it had the audience in the room laughing and enjoying themselves. See the President Bush impersonation bit here.