This month’s Utne Reader has a cover story entitled “Want to Know What’s Really Going on? Ask a Comic”, focusing on the upsurge in satire during President Bush’s second term.
One of the interesting parts of the article is how the writer David Schimke tries to distinguish the current crop of comics from their predecessors. The example he gives is Stephen Colbert and his post-White House Correspondents Dinner appearance on David Letterman. He claims that Colbert made Letterman “as uncomfortable as he had the president’s apologists.” To Schimke, Letterman doesn’t seem to get Colbert for whatever reason - including the very dubious idea that Letterman recognizes that his comic persona is of the past.
I’ve found the appearance on YouTube, and I don’t really see Letterman being uncomfortable here. True, there’s not a lot of riffing with Colbert, but what I see is someone who’s grown comfortable enough as a performer (well, as comfortable as Letterman can be) to play straight man for a little while. He’s helping Colbert look good. There’s even a little joy from Letterman in not seeing one of Colbert’s punchlines coming.
Also considering Colbert was on the show to promote the Strangers with Candy movie, a movie that Letterman’s Worldwide Pants produced, I think it’s fair to say Letterman gets Colbert’s brand of humor.
Besides it’s not important how Letterman handles the Bill O’Reilly parody, but rather the real Bill O’Reilly. This is what discomfort looks like. (A great little detail: notice that Letterman stirs O’Reilly’s drink with one of his pencils prior to bringing out the Fox commentator.)