Saturday, May 06, 2006

Was that Funny?

So sometimes I'm a little slow to react to breaking news. But my philosophy is that if breakiing news is good, then broken news must be better. And so (wait for it...) in the spirit of blogging on broken news, I want to talk about Stephen Colbert's recent speech at the White House correspondents' dinner, in which he addressed why the news out of the White House and the coverage of it is often so dysfunctional.

The blogosphere has been ever so excited about the speech for the last week or so. First and foremost, this would seem to prove that the blogosphere needs a date. Maybe a hot stone massage and a happy ending.

Still, the speech was interesting, if for no other reason than because people disagree so angrily about it. The only thing everyone can agreee on is that Colbert stood at the podium, two or three yards from Pres. Bush and, under the guise of praise and agreement, told President Bush that he was a mean-spirited, incompetent liar with a proclivity for shady dealings.

Shockingly, people on the left found this funnier than people on the right. That explains a lot of the debate right there. Colbert was doing satire rather than one-liners, and satire is only funny if people can sympathize with your world view enough to understand why you think your object of satire is absurd or wrong. Along similar lines, I'm sure that there would have been more laughter in the room if Colbert hadn't repeatedly torn into the White House correspondents for spending the first five years of the Bush presidency working as subcontractors for the White House public relations office.

But I don't think that's all there was to it. A lot of people in the room did sympathize with Colbert's satirical point of view enough to have found his material funny, and there still weren't a lot of laughs, at least not nearly as many as I think the act deserved. Obviously, this is hard stuff to talk about with any certainty; comedy doesn't lend itself to theorization. Still, something happened in that room that went beyond the easy categories of funny/not-funny.

I'm willing to bet that most of the audience actually did find a lot of what Colbert was saying pretty funny. I just think they found it uncomfortable at the same time, so uncomfortable that it didn't feel quite right to laugh, at least not too loudly. I was talking to Mike about this, and he thinks a lot of the discomfort came from the correpondents themselves, who not only didn't especially appreciate being satirized but also felt uncomfortable on behalf of Pres. Bush. That's probably right. But even more interesting, I think that the discomfort came from the fact that Colbert was calling Bush out. And he was doing so very publicly and very directly. And any such calling-out is always a tense moment, particularly when you're calling out a guy who will (as audience member Joe Wilson could have attested) put your wife in harm's way if you call him out.

Now, I think a lot of the hysterical condemnation of Colbert from the right is just goofy. "Not funny," though untrue, is a fair enough criticism. Colbert was hired as a comedian. If he wasn't funny, he failed. But "disrespectful" is a non-starter as a basis for critique. A lot of Colbert-bashers seem to think that Colbert showed up at a White House dinner or even a private dinner in the President's residence and went after him there. He didn't. It's was the White House correspondents' dinner, not a White House dinner. Over decades, the dinner has become known for satire, much of it at the expense of the President. Bush knew that. The President wasn't simply a guest of honor--he was the guest of honor at a roast.

What I think is interesting, though--and what I think explains so much of the discomfort and nervous silence during Colbert's act--was that given Colbert's schtick, the act formally functioned as the inverse of a roast: instead of standing up and expressing an affection for the President under the guise of tearing him a new one, Colbert got up and tore him a new one under the guise of expressing affection. Given the subject matter (Abu Grahib, illegal wiretapping, failures in Iraq, secret European prisons, the President's hostility toward logic and inconvenient facts, the President's 32% approval ratings), the implication quickly became that only a buffoon could support the President--and, of course, that the President is his own biggest suporter.

I think Colbert's act was very good. Brilliant in spots. And pretty ballsy. But I also think it would have been hard to laugh at if I'd been in the room precisely because the funniest parts of the Bush administration--the parts Colbert honed in on--are also, in Colbert's terms, "super-depressing." They're serious. They're the kind of things you have to laugh at to keep from crying, not the kind you laugh at until you cry. In that sense, I think the awkwardness in the room was more Bush's fault than Colbert's. If you don't want people's satire of your performance to be uncomfortable, don't invade countries on a whim, hire and fire incompetent cronies for jobs that people's lives depend on, ignore the CIA when it tells you things you don't want to hear, etc., etc.

Imagine, if you will, a structurally similar performance (fake praise=satire) for Clinton or Bush I. We would have gotten jokes about points of light, tax hikes, mangled sentences, french fries, blowjobs, trailer trash. It probably would have been funny. It probably would've gotten more laughs. But that's because none of the "scandals" of either adminstration actually mattered to anyone except the career politicians involved. They were, by and large, minor affairs or outright bullshit. The same can't be said for Bush II's scandals. And when humor is honest about serious stuff, it can still be funny, but it usually isn't comfortable.


At 11:36 AM , Blogger adriana said...

Well said.


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