Whenever I look back on the early episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender, I realize that Iroh was probably acting a little ridiculous on purpose. He knows that Zuko still has fresh emotional wounds from his cruel, uncompromising father and sadistic sister, and the one source of softness and warmth in his life, his mother, is long gone. Iroh always tried to be a friend to Zuko, but now that his nephew has been scarred and banished, he tries to be goofy and funny and carefree so desperately hard because all he wants is for Zuko to smile and relax again. If making a fool out of himself is what he has to do, he’d do it a hundred times over.
how dare you give me iroh feels all these years later
that, and it gives him cover to slow things down.
he doesn’t want to capture the Avatar, but he can’t tell Zuko that; he needs time to help his nephew get out of the mindset Ozai’s abuse taught him.
nobody’s going to listen to him if he just tells them to stop - it’s too blatant a betrayal of the Fire Lord’s wishes - but he can play the buffoon; when they get too close, he can lose a piece of his pai sho set and delay the entire operation to replace it.
because he’s a loving uncle, and this is what Zuko needs on that level; but he’s also a genius strategist and an experienced conspirator, and this serves his purposes on a few levels
there’s even a pretty damn direct implication that he’s doing this deliberately. it’s easy to miss at the time, because you don’t have the context, but that first time we see Iroh delay Zuko and the soldiers chasing Aang? it is, as I mentioned, when he loses a piece of his pai sho set, only to realise he’d been carrying it all along
specifically, it’s the White Lotus tile - the one that gave its name to the order of benevolent meddlers he’s secretly been a member of this whole time. there’s no way that’s a coincidence.
Pretty sure I’ve said this before, but Uncle Iroh is possibly the most brilliantly sophomoric character ever written.