01 May 2006

The thrill is gone

"It's funny because it's true," said Homer Simpson. But just how far can you take the adage that all humor is rooted in truth? Saturday night's White House Correspondents Dinner suggests there is a limit.

This year's event featured comedian du jour Stephen Colbert playing his right-wing blowhard alter ego, also named Stephen Colbert, celebrating President George W. Bush, who sat, mostly unamused, just a few feet away at the head table for all 25 excruciating minutes of the satirical roast. Colbert's material revolved around the same themes that dominate his nightly parody on Comedy Central: the superiority of emotion over intellect, the power of acting from the gut rather than the brain, the irrelevancy of reality, of dogma over doubt.

On television, before a live, like-minded, studio audience, this stuff can be devastatingly funny. On C-SPAN, with Bush seated just off-camera, it was something else. What was hilarious in one context was awkward, uncomfortable and unsettling in another.

This took me completely by surprise. To my ears, there are few hours of television that generate more laughs than the one-two punch of Jon Stewart's Daily Show followed by Colbert's Colbert Report. It's fine to draw attention to Bush's anti-intellectualism and the disastrous consequences for the world around us, on a comedy channel. But when the guy is sitting right there, it's much harder to forget about those consequences.

You may not share my discomfort. Many of the invitees at the dinner did chuckle along with Colbert, though not as heartily as I suspect the organizers would have hoped. (The entire thing can be seen here. and read here.) But consider a few excerpts:
The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday, that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change, this man's beliefs never will.
That's funny, until you remember that Bush's refusal to accept the findings of the world's best epidemiologists -- and fund family-planning programs that include the distribution of condoms -- has condemned countless thousands of Africans to an existence cursed by AIDS.

That's funny until you remember that his dismissal of the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is wasting precious time as we struggle to put the brakes on climate change.

That's funny until you remember that this is a guy who would undermine the education of our children with creationist nonsense instead of sticking to evolution.
Now, I know there's some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality." And reality has a well-known liberal bias.
That's funny, until you remember that the Bush administration exposed the identity of a covert CIA operative for purely political purposes. Or until you remember that reality really does seem to have a liberal bias, at least it does relative to the neo-conservatism of those in charge at the moment.
I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.
That's funny, until you remember that there are thousands of families who are missing a father or mother or son or daughter thanks to a war waged on false pretences, and that, eight months after Katrina, thousands more still have almost nothing to their name thanks to the worse disaster response in American history.

And then it's not so funny anymore. Not when the president is sitting right there.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Colbert sounded truely angry at points. His delivery, although amazing, was clearly deeply felt and designed to be as direct as possible. He may have maintained the vanier of a comedian, but there is no doubt everyone in the room got the real message. Uncomfortable? Absoultely. But to see all these people forced by polite social conventions to just take it was unforgettable.


10:12 AM  
Blogger James Hrynyshyn said...

Very true. But did Bush and his cronies get the message? I'm not so sure.

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with what you're saying, and I think that making the audience and the president actually *think* about the consequences of the President's actions (or inaction) is exactly the point of Mr. Colbert's entire speech.

I applaud you for highlighting specific examples of each of the points Stephen was making.


10:59 AM  
Blogger wolf21m said...

I agree that this is a very, very sad state of affairs. Its even sadder that under the guise of comedy is the only way that someone will get away with saying this directly to the president. I am glad he had to sit there and listen to it.

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't the best satire supposed to make us giggle -- but ultimately leave us a bit squeamish? I don't like the idea of eating children, but that doesn't mean that Jonathan Swift should have written any other way . . .

11:55 AM  
Blogger James Hrynyshyn said...

The pleasure we get from reading Jonathan Swift today comes in part from not having to read "A Modest Proposal" out loud in the presence of the artistocracy he was skewering.

12:03 PM  

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