NY Times May 3, 2006
After Press Dinner, the Blogs Are Alive With the Sound of Colbert Chatter By JACQUES STEINBERG
Mark Smith, a reporter for The Associated Press who is president of the White House Correspondents' Association, acknowledges that he had not seen much of Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central before he booked him as the main entertainment for the association's annual black-tie dinner on Saturday night. But he says he knew enough about Mr. Colbert -- ''He not only skewers politicians, he skewers those of us in the media'' -- to expect that he would cause some good-natured discomfort among the 2,600 guests, many of them politicians and reporters.
What Mr. Smith did not anticipate, he said, was that Mr. Colbert's nearly 20-minute address would become one of the most hotly debated topics in the politically charged blogosphere. Mr. Colbert delivered his remarks in character as the Bill O'Reillyesque commentator he plays on ''The Colbert Report,'' although this time his principal foil, President Bush, was just a few feet away.
''There was nothing he said where I would have leapt up to say, 'Stop,' '' said Mr. Smith, who introduced Mr. Colbert and sat near him on the dais. ''I thought he was very funny,'' Mr. Smith added, though there was hardly consensus on that point yesterday.
At issue was a heavily nuanced, often ironic performance by Mr. Colbert, who got in many licks at the president -- on the invasion of Iraq, on the administration's penchant for secrecy, on domestic eavesdropping -- with lines that sounded supportive of Mr. Bush but were quickly revealed to be anything but. And all this after Mr. Colbert tried, at the outset, to soften up the president by mocking his intelligence, saying that he and Mr. Bush were ''not so different,'' by which he meant, he explained, ''we're not brainiacs on the nerd patrol.''
''Now I know there's some polls out there saying this man has a 32-percent approval rating,'' Mr. Colbert said a few moments later. ''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.''
That line got a relatively warm laugh, but many others were met with near silence. In one such instance, he criticized reporters for likening Mr. Bush's recent staff changes to ''rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.'' ''This administration is not sinking,'' Mr. Colbert said; ''this administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.''
In an online survey begun yesterday, the snarky Web site Gawker sought to boil down the matter to its essence by asking readers to vote on whether they thought Mr. Colbert's performance, broadcast live on C-Span and since then widely available on the Internet, was ''one of the most patriotic acts I've witnessed of any individual'' or ''not really that funny.''
Meanwhile, on its Web site, the trade journal Editor & Publisher posted more than a dozen letters from readers under a headline that reflected the broad range of electronic opinion: ''Colbert Offensive, Colbert Mediocre, Colbert a Hero, Colbert Vicious, Colbert Brave.'' Mr. Colbert's employer, Comedy Central, said it had received nearly 2,000 e-mail messages by Monday morning -- a response, it said, rivaled only by the contentious appearance nearly two years ago of Jon Stewart, Mr. Colbert's comedy patron, on the now-defunct CNN shout-fest ''Crossfire.''
Others chided the so-called mainstream media, including The New York Times, which ignored Mr. Colbert's remarks while writing about the opening act, a self-deprecating bit Mr. Bush did with a Bush impersonator.
Some, though, saw nothing more sinister in the silence of news organizations than a decision to ignore a routine that, to them, just was not funny.
''I'm a big Stephen Colbert fan, a huge Bush detractor, and I think the White House press corps has been out to lunch for much of the last five years,'' Noam Scheiber wrote by way of introduction on the New Republic's Web site. But a few lines later he said: ''I laughed out loud maybe twice during Colbert's entire 20-odd minute routine. Colbert's problem, blogosphere conspiracy theories notwithstanding, is that he just wasn't very entertaining.''
In addition to the challenge of coming after the president and his doppelgänger, Mr. Colbert struggled to find common comedic ground in a room that included politicians across the ideological spectrum, as well as reporters and Hollywood stars. In that sense, he was in good company: many of his recent predecessors -- who have included Cedric the Entertainer, Jay Leno, Mr. Stewart, Ray Romano and Al Franken -- were knocked, at least in some quarters, for falling flat.
''It's very, very tricky,'' Mr. Franken, a Democrat who played the dinner twice during the Clinton years but was not there on Saturday, said in an interview. ''I thought that what Stephen did was very admirable.''
Mary Matalin, a Republican who has served the Bush White House as assistant to the president and counselor to the vice president, had a different take.
''This was predictable, Bush-bashing kind of humor,'' Ms. Matalin, who was there, said in an interview. Of Mr. Colbert, she said, ''Because he is who he is, and everyone likes him, I think this room thought he was going to be more sophisticated and creative.''
Mr. Colbert declined through a ''Colbert Report'' spokeswoman to comment yesterday. Similarly, another Colbert target, Mr. Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, said he had no comment, including on reports that Mr. Bush had appeared irritated by the end of Mr. Colbert's speech.
''We'll let others be the entertainment critics,'' Mr. McClellan said by phone from the White House. ''I know better than to insert myself into that one.'' ---------- Posted for educational purposes by Robert Paul rpaul@xxxxxxxx
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