Friday, May 05, 2006

Stephen Colbert: Comedist Martyr

Much has been made of Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner last weekend. I'd like to add a Comedist perspective.

Comedians use the term "bomb" to mean that your routine was not well-received by your audience. Colbert walked into a hostile room. A room he knew would not appreciate his pointed humor, yet he went through with it anyway. He intentionally bombed. He was a martyr for comedy.

He knew that it would be a hostile room and the reaction has been predictable. My favorite is the Washington Post's Richard Cohen. Cohen writes,

"First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy. This is well known in certain circles, which is why, even back in elementary school, I was sometimes asked by the teacher to "say something funny" -- as if the deed could be done on demand. This, anyway, is my standing for stating that Stephen Colbert was not funny at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner."
What immediately comes to mind is Bruno Kirby's cameo as a Sinatra-loving limo driver in Spinal Tap. He explained that he knew great music and that these no talent rock and rollers were no good and the whole thing was just a fad anyway. In the same way, Cohen knows funny and this isn't it, the whole Colbert thing is just a fad. What really comes to mind is the reception of Lenny Bruce. You heard the same condemnations of being rude, inappropriate, disrespectful, disgusting. And, like with Lenny Bruce, among the lefty, well-educated, hip crowd the routine absolutely killed.

But what about the room? Forget about Bush. Think about the crowd, the White House Press Corpse. Colbert's shtick is to skewer exactly the correspondents and pundits in the crowd. Thinking that they would laugh at his bit is like thinking that Andrew "Dice" Clay would be well received at a meeting of the National Organization of Women, or thinking that letting Louie Anderson headline a Weight Watchers gathering would be a good idea, or thinking that Foster Brooks would get laughs at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or thinking the Chris Rock would be great at a Klan rally.

But it is not only being lampooned. This is a group that has a lot of internal conflict. These are people who have the primo spot in the world of journalism. These are people with big egos for being star reporters. They think they confront the greatest power on a daily basis and are the fearless front line of truth for the world. Now with this image of self-importance, they have been whooped. They have been threatened and turned into lapdogs. They know it and it is an unspoken truth. This was able to be swept under the rug as long as things didn't get too bad. But along came the debacles in Iraq and Katrina. Now the fact that they have failed to do their jobs not only became obvious, but the results have been devastating. And here was their night to congratulate themselves. They dress up and say to themselves, "My aren't we important. We'll eat, drink, and laugh at how much of an elite insiders club we are." They invite a comedian to come and do inside baseball jokes. Jokes about their strengths, jokes about how insular they are.

But Colbert did the opposite, his jokes pointed to the elephant in the room that everyone had agreed to ignore. Indeed, the ignoring of the elephant served as the foundational lie that they all needed to keep their self-images from being completely inconsistent with reality. It was an arrangement based entirely on bad faith. They all knew that the Emperor had no clothes and they also knew that if they said it, they would get beheaded. So they made livings commenting on the Emperor, making especially sure to never bring up issues of wardrobe. Then along comes Colbert and says, "Hey look at the Emperor's shirt. How does he get it to match the tie so perfectly? And my goodness, look at how those pants are tailored! Would you turn around, sir, and let us see how well it fits through the groin?" Everyone knows there are no pants and they all know that there are parts they are not supposed to look at because it is rude. Colbert was pointing right to those parts, but pretending -- exactly in the way that the reporters do -- that the pants were there. But when it was done by the Jester, the charade that everyone agreed to ignore was put front and center. As in King Lear, only the Fool speaks the truth.

Colbert bombed, but he did it for us. And so we say to him,
"I have been asked to read the following prepared statement on behalf of the Movement. 'We, the People's Front of Comedism, brackets, officials, end brackets, do hereby convey our sincere fraternal and sisterly greetings to you, Stephen, on this, the occasion of your martyrdom. Your dying on stage will stand as a landmark in the continuing struggle to liberate the parent land from the hands of the Neo-conservative aggressors, excluding those concerned with drainage, medicine, roads, housing, education, viniculture, and any other Republicans contributing to the welfare of Comedists of both sexes and hermaphrodites. Signed on behalf of the P.F.C., etcetera.' And I'd just like to add, on a personal note, my own admiration for what you are doing for us, Stephen, at what must be, after all, for you, a very difficult time."
(Anyone who does not recognize where this is cribbed from, shame, shame, shame. Your penance is to rent this and say ten "Hail Montys.")