Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Missing the point

My favorite imbecile, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, paused briefly from considering his magnificence:
First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy.
to review Steven Colbert's speech at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner last weekend. He was not amused:
Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude.
Ah, what a big happy universe we live in, full of shiny things that Cohen doesn't understand. Well, I was never able to explain Doonesbury to my dog, but let's give this one a shot. Colbert did a twenty-minute comedy act attacking the press, and it was utterly magnificent. After six years of covering for Bush, six years of declining to pursue his Administration's never-ending search for increased executive power, six years of fatuously covering an aggressive, dangerous and profoundly stupid foreign policy, six years of pretending that this absurd, ignorant and petulant man-child merited even a nail-paring's worth of respect, the press in that room deserved everything that Colbert said to them. I hope it was intensely uncomfortable for them.

The White House press corps were, as a group, enablers. They treated Gore with contempt, while praising the sincerity and genuineness of George W. Bush, the least qualified man for president in the last hundred years. They covered vicious lies about Kerry as if they were volleys at a tennis game. They covered the ridiculous lies that led this nation into war as an interesting domestic political strategy, like the the cool point of view that sociopathic journalists might have taken while covering Kristallnacht: a fascinating political ploy observed in exotic Germany. They were stenographers when we needed analysis, cheerleaders when we needed skeptics.

The people in that room probably thought they were in for another self-congratulatory "you're so cool" homage, like the inane nicknames that the fratboy-in-chief uses to infantilize them. They would have expected in-jokes, a little song, a little dance, but no seltzer -- please -- and nothing heavy. Their internal surprise when they realized Colbert's real target must have been immense. What Cohen manifestly does not understand in his column about the speech is that Bush was always a secondary target of Stephen Colbert's deep irony. The press and the military were implicitly lampooned in every arrogant, fatheaded pose Colbert struck. That's where the venom was aimed: at the intelligent, competent people who have treated politics as a game, thereby enabling these crooks and liars, these murderers of our fine young soldiers.

When the jokes were personal, the press sat on their hands:
But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!
But when there was no clear target, no one they could offend by laughing, they didn't squirm, they laughed out loud, even though this was well past the uncomfortable part of the speech:
Jesse Jackson is here, the Reverend. Haven't heard from the Reverend in a little while. I had him on the show. Very interesting and challenging interview. You can ask him anything, but he's going to say what he wants, at the pace that he wants. It's like boxing a glacier.

Enjoy that metaphor, by the way, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is.
Both jokes are just as funny, and both are just as barbed in their despair over the world as it is. The different response to the two jokes speaks worlds, as does the general absence of coverage.

In any case, it's easy to go overboard while analyzing comedy, so I'll stop now. Here's the transcript. Here's the video, at least until the lawyers are unleashed. If you have the slightest interest in politics or comedy, watch it.

Two of my favorite comedians, Bill Hicks and Andy Kaufman, were justly famed for doing acts that went beyond straight comedy and into areas that made their audiences deeply uncomfortable. Colbert's act easily ranks with their greatest performances. For all three men, giving fierce, uncompromising performances like these are one of the bravest and truest things they can do. I am deeply grateful to Colbert (#711) for having had the professional nerve to speak forthrightly to the larger audience, and to avoid going for the easy laughs with the pampered folks he was addressing. Many, many fine comedians would have buckled under that pressure, but Colbert was a mensch.

Writing in a blog named after an obscene jest by a jester who was himself acting out of deepest love for his country, I cannot help but be pleased. Colbert's performance was in the finest tradition of all: the tradition that gleefully and loudly calls bullshit whenever they see it.

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