So, you've got a bunch of responses saying that either a.) Colbert bombed or b.) Colbert "crossed the line." (Thanks Fox!)
A quick explanation is in order. At some point -- a crucial point in a young comic's life -- one realizes that the response of the audience just doesn't matter. I am exaggerating only slightly. But somewhere out there on the road you have that one miserable show, using all the material you used for every other show, and you realize that audience feedback is critically important, but it is not defining. A MONTH of bad shows is a different animal altogether, but I trust you see my point.
In various circumstances as a road comic, I have seen every comic you can imagine, at some point or another, suck it. Hard. Seinfeld, Leno, Belzer, Ellen*, Ray Romano, pick 'em. Sometimes you just don't gel with an audience, but at that point you've been doing it long enough not to suddenly think the five years of good shows were somehow flukes.
But I have seen plenty of people "bomb" who left me breathless with the genius of their writing. Larry David, who a fair number of even the conservative culture mavens love, was notorious for his spellbinding nightclub routines that comics standing in the back of the room marvelled at but audiences hated. Garry Shandling famously worked open-mike nights for something like SEVEN YEARS before he was able to meld his brilliant writing with something audiences could relate to.
If Colbert "bombed", it was because the audience didn't like him. And you know what -- they WEREN'T SUPPOSED TO. We have been treated to toothless feel-good comedy for so long, we have forgotten what the court jester's job was: he was the only guy who could mock the King. And, seeing as we now have a President who acts like a King, it's only fitting that Colbert revive the tradition in its truest form. If I remember correctly, the toady court followers were also fair game for the Jester, and we could hardly call the modern media anything less these days, can we?
As for Colbert crossing the line -- how? Did he make remarks about the President's wife? About his children? His sex life? His draft dodging, his drinking and drug use before he found the Lord? No. Every joke used a well-known fact of public-record. Does anyone deny the poll numbers cited? Does anyone deny that the government response to previous crisises have been deficient? Does anyone deny that Administration officials outed Valerie Plame (hell, even the Administration officials now have to rely on he idea it was accidental)? Does anyone deny that the Administration has actively opposed global warming discussions? Listen -- if the President could do a long routine about not finding WMD's and laughing about it, while US soldiers died in the resultant war ... then to be frank I think he set the bar. Oddly, I think that if Colbert had done the routine the President did a couple years ago, THAT would have been crossing the line for me.
If his sin was incivility, then what the audience/bookers were looking for wasn't comedy. Comedy is by its nature uncivil. Comedy is, in both linguistic structure and overall psychological impact, hostile. Sometimes overtly, often not. But there is no such thing as a joke structured like: "You know what makes me happy? Yeah, that same thing that makes everybody else happy. (sigh)" There is no laugh there.
I hate to play into the stereotype of all comics being angry, but at the very least we are all in some small way sociopathic. We do not process emotions and emotional context like other people. At the same time some civilized part of me was horrified by the first 9/11 joke I heard, some other part of my brain was impressed by its structure and transgressive nature. I'm not particularly pround of that, but it was as reflexive as a musician hearing a song he hates, but instinctively picking out what key it's in.
I told a United 93/RV joke today. The part of my brain my parents raised smacked me in the back of the head. The part of me that was on the road for 12 years quietly regretted that I could only ever say it in the presence of other comedians, because it was such a clean little bit of construction. You may not have to be angry to be a comic -- but to varying degrees you do have to stop being bound by 99.99999% of the population's definition of "polite."
All comedy is based on revealing a truth, sometimes so minor as to seem inconsequential, but a generally unobserved truth nonetheless. Sometimes the truth is a monstrous truth -- and many times comics shy away from that monstrous truth, unwilling to deal with the fallout from being its bearer. But the ones who embrace that mission -- Bruce, Carlin, Richard goddam Pryor, Bill Hicks ("Your child is not special", jesus the stones that took) -- they transcend.
One of the insanely annoying phrases lefties overuse is "Speaking truth to power." Well, kids, you know what? Standing three feet from the most powerful man in the world and poking fun at his public foibles, telling your audience that they are cowards by doing nothing more than pointing out the truth of their actions -- THAT'S speaking truth to power. Mutter to yourselves all you want, civilians. Colbert, that night, became one of the stories comics will trade for literally decades to come. Young comics will learn it from old comics. Audiences come and go. We honor our own.
"Poor Vaughn Meader", bitches. Poor. Vaughn. Meader.
* Ellen was, as a road comic, one of the best joke writers of the last thirty years. Seriously, her socio-political fame has completely eclipsed that legacy. She was technically ... blinding.