The commentary, though, is also what I do, and it will make the point that Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude. Rude is not the same as brash. It is not the same as brassy. It is not the same as gutsy or thinking outside the box. Rudeness means taking advantage of the other person's sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving. The other night, that person was George W. Bush.
Why are you wasting my time with Colbert, I hear you ask. Because he is representative of what too often passes for political courage, not to mention wit, in this country. His defenders -- and they are all over the blogosphere -- will tell you he spoke truth to power. This is a tired phrase, as we all know, but when it was fresh and meaningful it suggested repercussions, consequences -- maybe even death in some countries. When you spoke truth to power you took the distinct chance that power would smite you, toss you into a dungeon or -- if you're at work -- take away your office.
But in this country, anyone can insult the president of the United States. Colbert just did it, and he will not suffer any consequence at all. He knew that going in. He also knew that Bush would have to sit there and pretend to laugh at Colbert's lame and insulting jokes. Bush himself plays off his reputation as a dunce and his penchant for mangling English. Self-mockery can be funny. Mockery that is insulting is not. The sort of stuff that would get you punched in a bar can be said on a dais with impunity. This is why Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.
Read the entire piece, which accurately deliniates the significant difference between humor and displacement. Both are psychological defenses. True humor offers a catharsis for more than just the person using it; and while displacement may be funny to some, it is the childish/adolescent version of humor that is more like disguised cruelty.
As I have noted many times in this blog, humor is an extraordinarily mature and healthy psychological defense. It is the overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) in a creative manner that gives pleasure to others. Often humor can let you call a spade a spade in a way that transforms the negative into a positive. As an example, President Bush himself displayed consideral humor of the self-deprecating variety in his own skit with the Bush double. As Cohen notes above, self-mockery can be funny; and it can also demonstrate maturity and honesty.
So, what are we to make of Colbert's humor at that dinner? Rude and insulting is too nice a word for it (and I must admit that I usually find Colbert rather funny). It was very revealing precisely because it revealed something about Colbert and any of those who found it hilarious--it revealed immaturity and intolerance. To be precise, it was just another attempt at displacement, the underlying psychological motivation of Bush Derangement Syndrome. The purpose of this kind of "humor" is to hurt. It makes very few feel pleasure except at the pain of someone else.
This kind of humor is found in children and adolescents mostly. The "ha-ha!" shout of the character Nelson, who makes fun of everyone's pain; while blissfully unaware of his own family's psychopathology in The Simpsons is an example; or one of the three stooges beating up on another.
Kids love that kind of humor because it lets them act out their aggression in a slightly less...physical manner (and therefore a more socially appropriate). While displacement may be a bit psychologically healthier than actually physically hitting the President over the head with a baseball bat, it is hard to see how those on the "caring and compassionate" left--so sensitized to others people's feelings-- are not exactly aware of how insensitive and loutish it was to attack someone who cannot respond. They rationalize their own behavior by making Bush a monster. This is only projection, however.
In short, Colbert's behavior and that of those who approve of it (and see him as some kind of courageous hero for speaking "truth to power"); are the typical kind of adolescent behaviors that allow the immature and uninsightful to be indifferent to their own cruelty and insensitivity towards others.
This is why noone at the dinner actually laughed at Colbert's jokes. Such rudeness in the name of humor is actually painful to witness (i.e., not funny) because when someone resorts to it, they are unintentionally revealing their own deepest--and darkest--soul.
The closest example I can think of is the intense embarassment a person feels when they accidently walk in on someone using the toilet.