Entering the Fray
Headlines in the mainstream media address vital questions and important issues raised by current events to be sure, but sometimes they neglect stories that fail to conform to their preconceived notions of what is news. Fortunately, the blogosphere is here to draw our attention to the inconvenient truths conventional journalists are afraid to touch. Last week we saw another instance in which a critical issue fell through the cracks in the MSM until bloggers gave it much-deserved attention. I refer, of course, to Stephen Colbert's speech at the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. It's time the CR wrote out on this.
As this article relates, blogs have debated the merit of Colbert's performance at the correspondents' dinner, with liberal observers in general finding Colbert funny, or at least memorable, and the conservative audience mostly unimpressed. I expressed my opinion to friends last week after seeing the speech, which wasn't really that funny.
Like MSM commentator Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post, I can be a funny guy. If you need proof, I can show you student evaluations to that effect. The comments I highlight in my annual teaching reports would lead you to believe that my performance is evaluated largely on how funny I am. Also like Cohen, I was also often called upon in school to be spontaneously funny. In eighth grade I made fun of another student during a presentation he was giving so effectively that he started to cry. I was so proud.
Unlike Cohen, I don't fault Colbert's performance for rudeness. I thought Colbert was about as funny as he usually is on his Comedy Central show, if you subtract the visual crutches and supporters he leans on during the show. There were some darts, but a lot of bricks as well. I think Colbert was trying to use the close proximity with his target as another crutch, the way he does (sometimes effectively) on his show, to make the material funnier.
Cohen's accusation of rudeness against Colbert ultimately doesn't hold together. Sure, most of Colbert's jokes were at the expense of the President and many of them were lame, but if the latter weren't true, Cohen's critique should still hold. To rephrase, Cohen's claim that Colbert was guilty of rudeness shouldn't depend on whether or not the jokes were funny, just that they were at the expense of the "guest of honor" and he was constrained by decorum from reacting as he might like to. However, from the way he relates it, Cohen's allegation depends on Colbert's jokes being weak. Telling good jokes at the expense of a function's guest of honor is a well-established tradition known colloquially as a "roast." Making unfunny statements at the expense of a politician, even in his presence, is called "political commentary," a tradition nearly as well established as roasting. It's only making unfunny statements that are supposed to be good jokes at the expense of a guest of honor who's a politician that's not such standard practice.
My problem with Colbert's speech was that he chose the wrong target. The best parts of the speech were those directed at the feeble efforts of the press to cover the White House over the last five years. Colbert's act on the Colbert Report has the same problem. Sure, it's great to see some parody of the tortured facts and twisted logic that conservative TV personalities like Bill O'Reilly marshal to defend the President, but the real object of Colbert's act should be the state of TV "journalism," not the president they shill for. Cohen is right that Colbert was playing to the audience at home, the friendly audience who tune in for the Daily Show and his own almost as if they were a shadow universe, an alternative reality kind of like the West Wing in which no one really takes conservative positions seriously. Colbert did have a chance to say something to the audience in front of him, but he would have succeeded not by getting laughs from that audience, but by really making them dislike him.
I'd like to see Colbert parody figures like the new Press Secretary Tony Snow, recent Fox News commentator and former guest host for Rush Limbaugh's show. Snow, as has been remarked upon to no end recently, is no reflexive apologist for the Bush administration. Snow is sometimes critical of Bush, from the Right.
I want to see Colbert take his belligerent TV character into the Red Zone. He should be to the right of Bush on every issue, excoriating the administration for not following through on True Conservative Principles, offering only reluctant praise for how far Bush is willing to go (phrased in language that makes the President sound as extreme as possible), occasionally suggesting with satisfaction that the President is really more conservative than even his supporters believe. I imagine that doing so would perhaps allow fewer opportunities to make jokes directly at the President's expense, but so be it. A lot of those jokes are bad anyway and they undermine the act. Colbert subtly breaks character far too often for the sake of a (often lame) dig at President Bush. I wouldn't mind if the Colbert Report wasn't even that funny in the conventional sense.
Rather than pandering to his enthusiastic Blue voter audience, Colbert should risk appealing to red meat Red voters, the better to parody their own positions. He should cause committed liberals and Democrats to wonder occasionally whether he's really serious. He should risk being disliked by everybody. I want to see Stephen Colbert turn into the new Andy Kaufman. Unfortunately, that's never going to happen.
Here's an example of what I'd like to see. During the first Gulf War (as I continually hear it referred to, although we aren't calling the current Iraq campaign Gulf War II), I was in college on a pretty political campus that had protests in favor of or against the buildup and war on a regular basis throughout late '90 and early '91. Seeing an opportunity, I made up a bunch of flyers and posted them around campus advertising a meeting of a group called "Patriots for Domestic Exploitation." I read a bunch of Pat Buchanan speeches and wrote a jeremiad about Desert Shield, arguing that instead of liberating Middle Eastern plutocrats, we should be using this instability in the oil-producing region to recolonize Prince William Sound and other American sites that had been declared off-limits to oil exploration due to illegal, immoral and nonsensical environmental concerns. I maintained that the military campaign in the Gulf was driven by a conspiracy of Zionist homosexual drug dealing British royalty (Lyndon LaRouche was big at the time) and that we should conscript illegal immigrants at the border with Mexico and send them to Alaska to retake and work oil fields in federal preserves. I listed a schedule of meetings in various coffee shops around campus, but never had the guts to actually show up at the appointed times to see if anyone responded. I'd like to think no one took it seriously, but fear otherwise.
Was it funny? Not especially, but I was very amused (hey, I was still a teenager). In my fantasy scenario for how that joke played out, I show up to a packed meeting, whip up the attendees with a rousing and completely insincere speech along the same lines as the pamphlet with plenty of references to King Juan Carlos of Spain (a popular candidate at the time for being the Antichrist), and then lead them out into the street to disappear into a crowd and never see those freaks again.
I abandoned my dream of becoming a comedian when I realized things like this that tickled me were not funny to most people.
So, Stephen Colbert's routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner wasn't funny; there, I said it. Like Richard Cohen, I'd like to see him really enter the fray, but my idea of doing that isn't likely to keep the Colbert Report on the air for very long.