Tuned In

Stephen Colbert and the Death of "The Room"

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Was he funny or not? Days after Stephen Colbert performed at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, this has become the political-cultural touchstone issue of 2006—like whether you drive a hybrid or use the term "freedom fries." For those of you who haven’t seen the performance, Colbert, in character, launched into a scathing (by the standards of the dinner, not The Colbert Report) "tribute" to President Bush that had the Commander in Chief grimacing and the room of reporters and dignitaries in largely uncomfortable silence. Numerous attendees said that Colbert had "bombed" with an excessively harsh routine; commentators, mostly on the left, countered that anyone who panned his performance was a toady of the Administration.

Personally, I thought Colbert was good, if not his best; he flubbed a couple of jokes notably and recycled some lines from his own show. But he also got in some searingly acute shots, like the argument that, because "government governs best when it governs least" the government we set up in Iraq is outstanding. But I think that the people who said Colbert bombed reveal less about their political leanings than about their understanding of the media culture we live in now. The reason they think he flopped, of course, is that he didn’t get many big laughs in the room. And once upon a time, that would have been what mattered. You might have caught the performance on C-SPAN, but really, who would have? So Colbert would have lived and died on how well he entertained the room, and how well the room spoke of him in the media the next day.

Today, however, thanks to the reposting of the Colbert video online, any of you who are curious about Colbert’s performance have probably already seen it. Colbert wasn’t playing to the room, I suspect, but to the wide audience of people who would later watch on the Internet. If anything, he was playing against the room—part of the frisson of his performance was the discomfort he generated in the audience, akin to the cringe humor of Da Ali G Show. (Cringe humor, too, is something probably lost on much of the Washington crowd at the dinner, as their pop-culture tastes tend to be on the square side.) To the audience that would watch Colbert on Comedy Central, the pained, uncomfortable, perhaps-a-little-scared-to-laugh reaction shots were not signs of failure. They were the money shots. They were the whole point.

In other words, what anyone fails to get who said Colbert bombed because he didn’t win over the room is: the room no longer matters. Not the way it used to. The room, which once would have received and filtered the ritual performance for the rest of us, is now just another subject to be dissected online. Colbert—as he might say on The Colbert Report—"gets it." So does his patron, Jon Stewart, who similarly was said to have bombed at the Oscars because he turned off the stars in the theater with a snide performance that was much funnier to the (much bigger and more relevant) audience at home.

All of this, in other words, is yet another sign of how authority is fragmented and democratized in the Internet era—the top-down authority to assess and interpret for the masses that used to be much of the raison d’etre of the room. So if the room wasn’t too amused by Colbert Saturday night, you’ll have to excuse them. They don’t have as much to laugh about anymore.