Monday, May 08, 2006

A Letter to the Howler

I am one of thousands of people who, lacking cable, first heard about Stephen Colbert's now-(in)famous talk at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner about a week ago -- and quickly rushed to find video and transcripts online. I am also one of thousands who thought Colbert's performance at the dinner was both uproariously funny and, given his audience, appropriately scathing. In fact, after having reviewed the transcript and watched Colbert's performance again, I still believe as I did the first time I saw it: I think it's one of the finest comic performances I've ever seen.

I was not in the least surprised that professional courtiers like Richard Cohen panned the speech, or that the mainstream media chose to focus on President Bush's ho-hum skit with an impersonator while dropping Colbert's scathing performance down the memory hole. (Billmon explains. And let's not forget that the courtiers' outrage over tasteless jokes depends, apparently, on the status of the joker.) I was surprised, however, to find The Daily Howler among the ranks of those who thought Colbert's performance was "weak," "unfunny," and "inappropriate." The Howler, after all, has spent years engaging in witty, pointed criticism of the same press corps(e) and political establishment upon which Colbert heaps his comedic scorn. So surprised was I, in fact, that I immediately wrote to the Howler (aka Bob Somerby) and politely asked for an expanded explanation of his views on Colbert. I quickly received a polite and characteristically intelligent response that expanded upon the basic views the Howler had already put forward online (see also here): the jokes weren't that funny (witness the relative lack of audience laughter), but more importantly, Colbert was hired to entertain that audience -- not to challenge, insult, or lecture at them, which he clearly seemed more interested in doing.

I think I understand this view, but I do not agree with it. By way of hashing out my own views on Colbert, I wrote a letter of response to the Howler -- and if you'll forgive the indulgence, I thought I'd inaugurate this new blog by posting it here. This is hardly the most important issue in the world, I know, but hopefully the conclusion of the letter captures my sentiments as to why this might be worth arguing about. (I've changed some punctuation and added a few hyperlinks.)


I am not persuaded.

Colbert WAS funny. I don't propose to get into the question of whether the criteria for "funny" are objective or subjective; rather, I will point out that there are plenty of plausible alternative explanations for why *some* people at the dinner did not laugh:

  1. They were too . . . cognitively challenged? . . . to laugh (irony being a complicated thing, and some people in the room being, well, richer than they are smart).
  2. They were too afraid to laugh (the room being full of powerful people who might be the sort to hold grudges).
  3. They were too angry to laugh (because Colbert's barbs hit home, and they knew it).
I'm more sympathetic to your claim that Colbert's performance was inappropriate, but I still disagree. By way of defense, let me recall Jon Stewart's famous clash with Begala and Carlson (which I'm sure you've seen). Recall the growing discomfort on Carlson's pretty face as he realizes that Stewart isn't going to play by the standard rules of cross-media schmoozery (recite the expected scripts, don't criticize the media system, etc.). Recall Carlson's exasperated demand: "Be more funny!" (Recall also Carlson's desperate attempts to swing the conversation back to his one major talking point: "You were nice to Kerry! You're biased against Republicans!" etc.) Recall Stewart's response: "No. I'm not going to be your monkey." Stewart was able to get on their show and tell its hosts to their powered faces that their idiotic version of political "journalism" did more harm than good. That's something the average person could not do -- but Stewart, being a media celebrity, was able to get under their radar. Not long after Stewart's appearance, Begala and Carlson's show died -- and who mourns for it?

Did Stewart do the wrong thing in going on their show and refusing to play by "the implied rules" in that situation? I don't think so; I think he performed a valuable public service, in fact. And I think that Colbert did something quite similar.

Humor inherently involves the breaking of rules. Take the simplest joke: "I met a man who said he hadn't had a bite all week. So I bit him." If this is funny (delivery by Henny Youngman helps immensely), it's because "the rules" say that when people talk about "having a bite," they're using 'bite' metonymically -- they're really talking about eating. The jokester, however, violates this "rule" and takes 'bite' literally -- producing a momentary clash of two frames of reference. (Don't ask me to explain why humans respond to such cognitive phenomena by quaking and emitting odd noises; as a professional comic, you no doubt understand this magic better than I.)

Colbert's schtick involves rule-breaking on many levels at once. There's the relatively simple level of good wordplay. (Interviewing Jesse Jackson is "like boxing a glacier.") There's the more sophisticated level where the jokes refer to weightier matters of politics and public affairs. ("Enjoy that metaphor, by the way, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is." "I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior." And the McCain bit -- I'm sorry, but that WAS funny. Reducing his "maverick" reputation to the question of which fork he's using with his salad -- that's a great example of descending incongruity.)

Above it all, there's the meta-level of Colbert's cable-host persona, who forthrightly favors "truthiness" rather than truth and feeling rather than fact. By looking and sounding like so many other cable blowhards while explicitly turning his back on rationality and critical thinking -- by explicitly embodying an absurd epistemology while posing as just another cable host -- Colbert leads his audience to consider the disturbing possibility that the people who shepherd our public discourse don't just look and sound like him but have a similar disdain for rationality and critical thought. That alone is a magnificent public service -- and it's one that only a TV-savvy comic could give. (Mind you, I haven't seen enough of Colbert's show to know whether he can sustain this successfully for half an hour every night; however, in the short clips I've seen, he does wonders with the persona he's created.) Indeed, using different techniques, you've performed a similarly magnificent public service for many years through your own lone-wolf website, eviscerating our joke of a media system for similar offenses. That's why I'm surprised by your reaction to Colbert: from my perspective, you both use your talents to great effect in a similar enterprise. (My respect for you has long been immense. My respect for Colbert shot up immensely after seeing that speech.)

At that dinner, though, there's still another level to consider. There's Colbert the TV satirist, who impersonates key aspects of the reigning media-political system in order to subject it to ridicule; and there's Colbert the TV celebrity, who is in his own way one of the very media-political elite whom he ridicules. I'll never be in Colbert's shoes, but I imagine that the overarching question for someone in his shoes last Saturday night was, Which I should I be? Should I seize the opportunity I've been given to walk right into the liars' den and satirize the inhabitants right to their faces (when they can't turn me off or ignore me)? Such opportunities come very rarely; for most people, in fact, they never come at all. Or should I be the good celebrity, the well-behaved "entertainer," and water my material down to where it gently amuses but does not provoke thought -- let alone, God forbid, uncomfortable thought? Should I risk breaking the "implied rules" that say that my place among the elite is to make them feel good, not to make them think? Or should I be a good, obedient little celebrity and behave as my betters expect? Or, to put it another way: Should I be a man, or should I be a monkey?

I for one am glad that Colbert chose to break some of those "implied rules." He was neither rude nor vulgar, and through his warped comic persona he managed to invoke many legitimate (HIGHLY legitimate) criticisms of a political administration and a media system that, let's face it, have heretofore largely managed to ignore or marginalize intelligent criticism. It may have been uncomfortable for the powdered folks at that dinner to have their own corruption, dishonesty, and insanity rubbed in their faces, but tough sh*t; for thousands of us out there on the receiving end of their corruption, dishonesty, and insanity, it was LIBERATING. Thanks to his celebrity, Colbert was able to get through their insulation and give them a new perspective on themselves -- force them to see themselves, if only for a moment, as thousands of us see them. He may even have done some of them a favor. I hesitate to invoke the ghost of Socrates, but maybe they should thank him for performing a critical service rather than hate him for being a critical nuisance.

In sum, I would argue that you place too much emphasis on the sense in which a comic performer is just a hired hand, brought in to do a job (make people laugh), expected otherwise to keep their place. That's true, but it's only a partial truth. A comedian is also an artist, and art is more than a job to be done or a commodity to be bought and sold. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that a civilization dies when it forgets this. Though it pains me to disagree with you, I think that Colbert made the right choice, and I think his art rose to the occasion.

Here is the only thing I am ever going to write about Colbert at the Dinner:

Stevie-baby -- you know Stephen Fry's character in "V For Vendetta"? Watch your back, is all I'm saying.
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