NEW YORK — When comedian Stephen Colbert took to the dais Thursday for his keynote speech at the Al Smith white-tie charity dinner, the annual gathering of New York’s Roman Catholic elite, he flashed a sly glance at Cardinal Timothy Dolan, sitting a few seats away.
“I have great respect for Cardinal Dolan, though I do have to say, sir, it is not easy when you are wearing that outfit,” Colbert said, as the portly cardinal, in his traditional vestments, grinned.
“In that cape and red sash, you look like a matador who’s really let himself go.”
“Did you not see the invite?” Colbert added, as laughter echoed around the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. “It said white-tie, not ‘Flamboyant Zorro.’”
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It was just one more sign that Dolan and Colbert might have the most prominent friendship in Catholicism today.
A pair of consummate wits, the men hit it off last year at an evangelization event at Fordham University, going zinger-for-zinger and waxing about the intertwining of humor and faith. Last month, Dolan made his debut on “The Colbert Report,” Colbert’s Comedy Central talk show.
On Thursday, Colbert — who teaches Sunday school and is viewed by the cardinal as a fresh, charismatic ambassador for American Catholicism — opened his remarks by declaring himself “America’s most famous Catholic.”
“I know what the cardinal is thinking: ‘Stephen, pride is a sin,’” Colbert said. “Well, Cardinal, so is envy, so we’re even.”
The $1,500-a-plate Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a regular stop for presidential candidates and world leaders, is an elegant affair and a Friars Club-style roast. Guests in tail coats munch on caviar and petits fours as speakers crack one-liners about the politicians onstage. Colbert did not hold back.
On Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Tiny, tiny man. The real reason he doesn’t want drink cups larger than 16 ounces is because he’s afraid he might drown in one.”
On Gov. Andrew Cuomo: “I didn’t know you could tear yourself away from the excitement that is Albany on a Thursday evening.”
On Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker who lost the Democratic primary for mayor: “New York City is the only place in the world where the lesbian candidate is too conservative.”
On Raymond Kelly, the police commissioner: “Are you here alone or did you bring the whole biker gang?” (At this mention of the recent beating of an SUV driver by motorcyclists, the crowd audibly cringed. “I’m in trouble,” Colbert joked nervously.)
But on a night known for political humor, Colbert kept the focus on religion. He praised the event’s eponym, former New York Gov. Alfred Smith, saying he “shattered the stained-glass ceiling” for Catholic politicians, and said Dolan could have made pope, “but he blew it in the swimsuit competition.”
Colbert took particular glee in addressing the populist bent of Pope Francis, saying that if the new pope had planned the event, “we wouldn’t be in white-tie at the Waldorf; we’d be in sweatpants at the corner booth of the IHOP.”
If Francis had attended Thursday, “His Humbleness would be out washing the feet of the coat-check guy or something,” Colbert said, adding, “We get it, you’re modest.”
Dolan laughed throughout Colbert’s speech and offered an embrace as the comedian left the stage, telling the crowd that humor can be critical to a deeper understanding of one’s faith.
The dinner, which organizers said raised about $3 million for charity, had as its master of ceremonies Alfred Smith IV, the former governor’s great-grandson.