On using humor
May 07, 2006
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."
See Colbert's speech here or here.
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.
Find more video feeds and quotes from Colbert's speech here. Info on Truthiness here.
I thought his speech was great. He voiced opinions that Bush is normally shielded from, and even better Bush was forced to sit there and listen to it all.
I don't think that his audience was the President, or even the people in the room, so much. His real audience was the rest of us. He was speaking on our behalf, because the media who should be doing that for us have failed to do their part for the past few years.
Posted by: Will | May 07, 2006 at 06:49 PM
The cring-worthy speech was made in Edinburgh, Scotland. I'm not very proud of the fact this fool was Scottish but at least the audience - also Scottish - realised he was dying on the podium and reacted with the cringe it deserved.
Posted by: Ewan McIntosh | May 07, 2006 at 07:16 PM
Um, Garr? You don't expect to spur some kind of objective discussion on humor and satire, do you?
I don't think anyone here (including me) can speak to this subject without their political bias interfering. So what you will get is two groups of comments by two groups of commenters: Moonbats & Rethuglicans.
Being solidly in the latter camp, I just gotta say it: "Truthiness to power"? Please. Tell Colbert to speak similarly to Chavez or Zarqawi, and I'll salute his big, brass testicles. Going far beyond roasting to trashing the president at the Correspondents' Dinner requires nothing more profound than a lack of manners.
Posted by: Splashman | May 07, 2006 at 07:42 PM
The problem with Colbert's speech was that it was over the heads of most of the audience. One might have guessed that the Prez wouldn't grock Colbert's humor -- but I honestly think that many of the correspondents clearly don't know satire, irony or deep humor when they see it. Who could've predicted that a seemingly intelligent audience could be so humor-less? Colbert spoofed himself, on his show the next day, by showing scenes of the audience practically yawning, with the sound of crickets in the background. However, if you looked hard enough, you could see those people who were practically p**ing their pants, trying to contain their laughter. I thought he was great, and wasn't afraid to speak the truthiness.
Posted by: Suzanne | May 07, 2006 at 09:18 PM
Yes, I agree with Splashman - You won't get a civilized discourse on the speech. It was divisive...
But, I will disagree that it was a lack of manners. Bush is famous for controlling his view of the world. He, by his own admission, doesn't read newspapers. He doesn't answer questions asked by the media (at least, not that I've seen). His "town hall" meetings are carefully controlled. The American people wanted him to hear us, but he won't listen. He listens only to his advisors and Fox news. Yet he claims to speak for all of us in his decisions - that's rude.
The press corps implicitly follows the president, never questioning that he does speak for the American people. And then they hold this dinner to "congratulate" themselves on a job well done - that's rude.
What Stephen Colbert did is not rude. Calling out people for their own rudeness is necessary. Even the Buddhist masters did this.
Thank you, Stephen Colbert, you were able to speak for the other half of the American people, the ones that didn't vote for Bush.
Posted by: Matt | May 07, 2006 at 11:30 PM
Cheers Garr. I was hoping one of my presentation luminaries would pick up on Colbert's performance in light of the feat of presenting it was.
The first 5 minutes or so, he's getting plenty of audience reaction and plenty of laughs. It's interesting to see he actually /loses/ a large part of his audience as he starts tearing at the president a bit too much. My favourite, the "The government that governs least, governs best" line, actually gets the most response, as does the line right after tearing at fundie cristians. Once he starts focussing on the audience again, he slowly gets em back. Once he calls washington the chocolate city with the marshmallow center, he's got em back again.
I doubt he's just not funny in between. It really isn't an issue of 'it just wasn't funny'. His audience thinks he's crossing the line.
So, here's to Mr. Colbert. A modern Socrates! That little schtick must have taken a lot of courage to pull off.
NB: For the mac users out there, in honour of Stephen I created a 'days of Dubya' widget that counts down how many days Bush is still in office. With a bonus sound effect if you click on it, handy in case you fear for america.
Posted by: Reinier Zwitserloot | May 08, 2006 at 12:20 AM
"Tell Colbert to speak similarly to Chavez or Zarqawi, and I'll salute his big, brass testicles."
What has that to do with anything? Why couldn't Colbert decide who he wants to criticize without having to criticize everybody else in the world that deserves it?
That awful binary thinking that is all over the US is very sad..
Posted by: Michael G. Richard | May 08, 2006 at 04:20 AM
No emperor likes being told he has no clothes. No spinmiester likes being told “we’re on to you.” But that’s the job of a satirist. Colbert was not only brilliant in his content, but his pacing and ability to stay in character despite obvious immediate hostility was just astonishing.
Interesting to note the similarities between Colbert’s performance here and John Stewart’s at the Oscars. Both brilliantly satirized the vanities of their respective audiences, and as a result both were given the cold shoulder by their immediate audience; both were panned by an obsequious mainstream media; and both were lauded in blogs, non-traditional media and by their extended audiences. It seems vanity neither respects political persuasion nor can it stand the irony in its own reflection. And both Washington and Hollywood are all about vanity.
I only hope the next time I’m dying in front of a hostile audience I’m able to channel a little Colbert and keep my act together half as well as he did.
Posted by: niblettes | May 08, 2006 at 04:26 AM
I wonder who exactly Colbert thought his audience was? Today, if you can make a big enough splash in the blogosphere, the ripples spread throughout the media, to the watercoolers, and into the minds of the masses. Not only didn't Colbert limit his audience to the people in front of him or the politicians beside him...he made all of them part of the joke. My guess is that his audience was you and me.
Between Technorati, YouTube, and the buzz that wouldn't stop buzzing, I'd say he successfully reached his audience.
The befuddled looks, the awkward fidgitting, the rolling of eyes in the audience...all of that was as much a part of the routine as Colbert's words. Just as though provoking.
Anytime American soldiers are shedding blood, they're doing it to protect the man next to them and the hard-won liberties of all Americans. Freedom of speech is perhaps the most precious of those liberties, and I commend Colbert for using his freedom how he saw fit.
The Emily Post discussions about what was appropriate and what wasn't are boring. Colbert wasn't. I presume Colbert thinks of Bush as someone who is deeply damaging to America (and the world) in many ways. A person of conviction doesn't squander away opportunities of this magnitude by falling into line and pretending the issues are trivial.
His performance was brilliant, will be long remembered, and may have started something even bigger that we have yet to see.
Posted by: Angelo | May 08, 2006 at 11:27 AM
I'm a Stewart and Colbert fan. But his humor just went over the heads of the audience. Taking jabs at the President and press core is expected at this event. But the humor is usually of a lighter variety. The problem with Colbert's show was that no one knew if he was serious or not. It was kind of not fair for the audience in this case. They really didn't know how to react and felt awkward during the whole presentation. Talks need to be tailored to your audience. In this case, I don't think Colbert's was.
Posted by: Andrej Gregov | May 08, 2006 at 02:35 PM
I was very uncomfortable watching his speech. I kept waiting for him to get a blow-dart in the neck from the Secret Service.
I think Stephen Colbert got exactly what he set out to get. Jon Stewart and crew are the masters of bringing C-Span action to the masses. His audience was all of us, who will likely now take notice of his comedy central show.
Posted by: Geordie Carswell | May 08, 2006 at 03:03 PM
I wouldn’t think that it was a case of lack of manners but a sense of going a bit overboard. It was an Ideal platform for colbert to take a shot or two at the president but not to a point where he makes him embarrassed or frankly humiliated.
If his intent was to nail the president on what he has doing and make him feel sorry for it or least of all get a response, he failed on both counts. And top of it, if I know right, Washington humor is one when it’s on you and not on the other guy...one reason why most think President Bush's performance was more apt for the occasion.
But yea its democracy and you have a right to say whatever you wanna say...freedom of expression and all that stuff...to see it in some real and very civilized action...check the link below...harry taylor criticizing bush....
Posted by: Kryptos | May 08, 2006 at 03:59 PM
Politics aside, Colbert *just wasn't funny*. There were a total of two clever jokes in his speech, the "rearranging deck chairs on the Hindenburg" bit and the "government that governs the least bit." The rest came off as amateurish.
This was a political Rorshacht test. Those who have a dislike of the current occupant of the White House loved it, everyone else either didn't get it or was offended by it. I don't think that Colbert was being brave at all for what he did - he knew quite well that he'd get the accolades of Bush's critics and it would boost his career. It was intended to be satirical, but it came off as subtle as a hammer to the head. Colbert gave some tasty red meat to his intended audience, but this wasn't the sort of speech that will change anyone's minds.
Posted by: Jay Reding | May 08, 2006 at 10:46 PM
I'm a Colbert fan and think he can be fabulous! I felt he was trying too hard at this event and overall he wasn't that funny. The best part of his speech is the world discussing it!
Posted by: Steve Mertz | May 09, 2006 at 12:24 AM
People keep talking about how the audience didn't get it or not. But up there giving the speech and not getting an audience response is not an easy task. Thats why I loved this performance of Colbert's.
The content can be disputed but his presentation skills were top-notch. He was in-character all throughout, didn't falter even once. He looked right in the face of the president when he made some comments (how many people can do that? and still be humorous?). He pointed and talked to people in the crowd and still pause-dramatised his lines just like he always does as if he was having a dialogue with them.
I've seen people take time to settle down initially on a speech like this. When Colbert took the stage, he knew the content of the speech, he should have been tensed, still it didn't show and he was right there from the first moment.
If anyone else thought otherwise, I would be interested to know.
Take for example Bush's impersonation speech. At 1:24 when he announces that he is "absolutely delighted to be here" - people were laughing and you could see he's taken aback for a second, probably trying to understand why the people were laughing at that sentence :)
Was Colbert lucky that people responded exactly as he/his team had expected? Probably, still its great planning and great execution.
Posted by: met | May 10, 2006 at 04:03 AM
Tucker is just sore because Jon Stewart's appearance on his previous show got him canned. At the time he did not seem to know that the Daily Report was a comedy and satire show. Just sour grapes.
Posted by: Joe Taylor | May 15, 2006 at 03:07 AM
Colbert's speech may have been over the heads of his audience, but that's not a compliment. His audience were those in the room, not the American people or Comedy Central viewers. You speak to the audience before you, to those who invited you, or did I miss something in the rules of making presentations?
I'm not happy with the current Administration and can't wait til 2008 when we get from under the rock that I feel like we're under and have a new day with...well, anyone would be fine, as President. But Bush is the President now. And that office deserves a certain level of respect.
It is one thing to go after Bush--it's the tradition at every Dinner to go after the President--so it's expected that the speaker will lob a few jokes at him. But to continue lobbing zingers to the point where the audience is embarrased for you means you have crossed a line. That little dig about standing on rubble? Tasteless. The adage that, if you're in a hole, stop digging, comes to mind.
But no, this guy, a comedian, then rips into his audience of Washington journalists for not being tough enough as journalists in covering the President. Colbert was brought in to entertain, not lecture.
Posted by: Jim Hillhouse | May 16, 2006 at 04:42 PM