Thursday, May 04, 2006

Good, Meaningless Laughs and Nothing More

Let there be no mistake about the media reaction to Steven Colbert's performance at last weekend's White House Correspondent's Association dinner. Colbert's greatest offense was not kowtowing to the powers that be. In a country where the powers that be are not supposed to need to be kowtowed to no less.

For anyone late to the 'controversy', the Correspondent's Association dinner- the annual poke gental fun at each other event between the Administration and the Journalists who cover the Administration- features journalists, famous folk, and members of the Administration in their formal finest, the President joking at his own expense (for instance, two years ago President Bush was shown looking high and low, under his dek, behind the curtains for those darn Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction; Clinton's final appearance featured him detailing how empty and boring his White House had become), and warmish feelings all around. This year, the 'host' of Comedy Central's 'Colbert Report' was the featured speaker. He performed in character. Hilarity did not ensue.

As has been discussed and debated elsewhere (start with Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing columns this week and work through the links if you are captivated) the published reactions to Colbert's performance have ranged from not mentioning its existence, to asserting his act was inappropriate to the forum, and claiming that Colbert's jokes just were not funny. As someone who watched his act as it happened on C-SPAN (I was waiting to go out later that evening. My other option was to sit in the kitchen and listen to the girls talk about taping their breasts or which shirt to wear or about gerkin, ahem, pickles... C-SPAN seemed the better option), I didn't find Colbert to be particularly funny. Partly because you could tell how awkwardly the audience was receiving his bit; partly because his gig lacked rhythm and flow. But mostly because the subject of his routine-- the perfect marriage of a hapless Administration and a similarly hapless press-- is no longer something I can describe as funny.

Was Colbert inappropriate? Satirically, he laid out the substantive cases against the President and the media who cover the President while they listened, a captive audience. Especially the President who sat mere feet away from Colbert. Now, no one is looking to be called a child molester at their own party. And in that regard, Colbert was inappropriate. He was there to entertain not educate, at least as far as the assembled guests were concerned. At the same time, none can claim to be surprised- Colbert presented 'Comedy Central's Steven Colbert.' To be sure, a certain level of respect is certainly due (referring to the President as Sir or Mr. President rather than Bush or Bozo) and was maintained. More than anything, the reaction to Colbert reminds me of the reaction to Jon Stewart's hosting of the Oscars a few months ago. Hollywood's finest got Jon Stewart doing 'Comedy Central presents The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' and did not appreciate the jokes at their expense. Again, what did they expect, Billy Crystal?

Stewart and Colbert have been so effective at parodying the serious newsmen of our age that they have been half confused for actual newsmen (see this transcript between Stewart and Howard Kurtz from 2002- or just check out the highlights here and here). But only half confused, for they are also mistaken to be simple entertainers. As Stewart's interview on Reliable Sources makes clear, the Daily Show works because it is not merely making jokes but satirizing (Seinfeld is funny, but satire it's not). Twice now in the space of a few months we have seen that the satirized elites don't seem to realize they are more than just the punchline to a few yucks. These missed reactions are akin to the English laughing their way through Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. Let's just say, this is probably a problem.

The elites- in the press, the Adminstration, and in Hollywood- invite the Colberts and Stewarts to perform as jesters in their court. A game attempt at showing they share the humor of the common man. That they are, in fact, a lot like the common man. Until the jester starts pulling back the curtains. Suddenly the problem is with the jester for not knowing his place rather than with the courtiers for having something to hide behind the curtains. Of course, we don't actually have royal courts in this country. Just elites who wish/ think we do. Also, probably a problem.

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