Wednesday, May 03, 2006


My friend Ken, by the way, is the one who brought Colbert's presentation at the White House Press Whore Dinner to my attention. He sent me the two pieces posted below on the Colbert fall out tonight. LS

This Colbert thingy is turning out to be an eye-opener. It's like night-vision goggles, exposing alot of stealth Bush apologists for what they are. -K



The docile press corps was offended when Stephen Colbert dared to expose Bush's -- and their own -- feet of clay. But how to respond? VoilĂ : "He wasn't funny."

By Joan Walsh

Stephen Colbert performs at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington Saturday.

May 3, 2006 | The only thing worse than the mainstream media's ignoring Stephen Colbert's astonishing sendup of the Bush administration and its media courtiers Saturday night is what happened when they started to pay attention to it.

The resounding silence on Sunday and Monday was a little chilling. The video was burning up YouTube, and Salon hit overall traffic heights over the last few days surpassed only by our election coverage and Abu Ghraib blockbusters. But on Monday, Elisabeth Bumiller's New York Times piece on the White House Correspondents' Association dinner kvelled over the naughty Bush twin skit but didn't mention Colbert. Similarly, other papers either ignored the Comedy Central satirist or mentioned him briefly. Lloyd Grove in the New York Daily News pronounced that he had "bombed badly."  (And yet magically, roars of laughter from the audience. -K)

Three days later, the MSM is catching on to Grove's tin-eared take on Colbert's performance. Belatedly, it's getting covered, but the dreary consensus is that Colbert just wasn't funny. On Tuesday night, Salon's Michael Scherer, whose tribute to Colbert is everywhere on the blogosphere (thank you, Thank you Stephen Colbert), got invited to chat with Joe Scarborough and Ana Marie Cox, who showed themselves to be pathetic prisoners of the Beltway by passing along the midweek conventional wisdom: The lefty blogosphere can argue all it wants that Colbert was ignored because he was shocking and politically radical, but the truth is, he wasn't funny, guys! And we know funny!

Regular Joe told us he normally races home to watch Colbert. So the problem isn't Joe's conservatism -- Joe's a congenial conservative, a fun-loving conservative, which is why he has Salon folks on all the time (thanks, Joe!). Cox showed why she's the MSM's official blogger by splitting the difference. She pronounced Colbert's performance "fine" but giggled at the left for its paranoia that he'd been ignored for political reasons. Cox and Scarborough mostly just congratulated themselves on being smart enough to get Colbert every night at 11:30, but savvy enough to know he wasn't completely on his game last Saturday. They barely let Scherer speak.

Similarly, the sometimes smart Jacques Steinberg must have drawn the short straw at the New York Times, where there had to be some internal conversation about the paper's utter failure to even mention Colbert on Monday. After all, his sharpest jokes involved the paper's laudable NSA spying scoop, and a funny bit where Colbert offered to bump columnist Frank Rich if Bush would appear on his show Tuesday night -- and not just bump him for the night, but bump him off. How could the Times not notice?

In Wednesday's paper, Steinberg wrote about Colbert's performance with the angle that it's become "one of the most hotly debated topics in the politically charged blogosphere" -- and only quotes Gawker as an example. He also wanders into the land of comedy criticism to explore the assertion that Colbert wasn't funny, but quotes not a comic, but New Republic writer Noam Scheiber. Scheiber (who has contributed to Salon) takes a liberal version of the Scarborough approach. "I'm a big Stephen Colbert fan, a huge Bush detractor, and I think the White House press corps has been out to lunch for much of the last five years," he wrote on the magazine's Web site. "I laughed out loud maybe twice during Colbert's entire 20-odd minute routine. Colbert's problem, blogosphere conspiracy theories notwithstanding, is that he just wasn't very entertaining." Chris Lehman makes the same point in the New York Observer, arguing it was a comic mistake for Colbert to f ail t o break character.

It's silly to debate whether Colbert was entertaining or not, since what's "funny" is so subjective. In fact, let's even give Colbert's critics that point. Clearly he didn't entertain most of the folks at the dinner Saturday night, so maybe Scheiber's right -- he wasn't "entertaining." The question is why. If Colbert came off as "shrill and airless," in Lehman's words, inside the cozy terrarium of media self-congratulation at the Washington Hilton, that tells us more about the audience than it does about Colbert.

Colbert's deadly performance did more than reveal, with devastating clarity, how Bush's well-oiled myth machine works. It exposed the mainstream press' pathetic collusion with an administration that has treated it -- and the truth -- with contempt from the moment it took office. Intimidated, coddled, fearful of violating propriety, the press corps that for years dutifully repeated Bush talking points was stunned and horrified when someone dared to reveal that the media emperor had no clothes. Colbert refused to play his dutiful, toothless part in the White House correspondents dinner -- an incestuous, backslapping ritual that should be retired. For that, he had to be marginalized. VoilĂ : "He wasn't funny."

This is a battle that can't really be won -- you either got it Saturday night (or Sunday morning, or whenever your life was made a little brighter by viewing Colbert's performance) or you didn't. Personally, I'm enjoying watching apologists for the status quo wear themselves out explaining why Colbert wasn't funny. It's extending the reach of his performance by days without either side breaking character -- the mighty Colbert or the clueless, self-important media elite he was satirizing. For those who think the media shamed itself by rolling over for this administration, especially in the run-up to the Iraq war, Colbert's skit is the gift that keeps on giving. Thank you, Stephen Colbert!


By Scott Rosenberg of


Colbert's critics should put away their laugh meters
Today the agenda for discussing Colbert at the White House Correspondents' Dinner is, "Was he, or wasn't he, funny?"

As any performer knows, humor is intensely subjective; it is brittle, circumstantial; it depends on the moment, what came before, who's in the room, how much they drank. I wasn't there in that banquet room. It seems that Antonin Scalia found Colbert's jokes hilarious; President Bush, along with much of the crowd, apparently did not. Viewing the video after the fact, I happened to find much of it funny. So have millions of downloaders and Bittorrent-ers and Youtube-sters.

But none of that really matters. Evaluating this event on laugh-meter scores is absurd -- it's just one more way of marginalizing and dismissing what actually happened that night. Just for a moment, Colbert brought a heavily sheltered President Bush face to face with the outrage and revulsion that large swathes of the American public feel for him and what he has done to our country. He did so at an event in which a certain level of jovial kidding is sanctioned, but he stepped far beyond. His caricature of a right-wing media toady relied on irony, and irony rarely elicits belly laughs, but at its best, it provokes doubt and incites questions. The ultimate goal of Colbert's routine was not to make you laugh but to make you think; it aimed not to tickle but to puncture.

In that sense, those observers who have criticized Colbert for being rude to the president are absolutely right. As I wrote yesterday, the performance was a deliberate act of lese majeste. That means it was meant to pop the balloon of protective ritual around Bush and let reality in, so we can see him -- along with those in the press who have been complicit with him -- for what he is.

Inside the Beltway, humor is supposed to be disarming, "humanizing." Ever since Richard Nixon appeared on "Laugh-in" and said "Sock it to me!," suggesting that he was not quite the conservative gorgon that he seemed to be, politicians have wanted to use comedy as a prop in their own campaigns of self-promotion. But that's a late-20th-century degradation of comedy. There's an older tradition -- stretching back to the commedia dell'arte and beyond, into the medieval court and its "all-licensed" fools -- in which the comic seeks the discomfiture of the powerful.

Colbert's act had less in common with cable-channel comedy shows than with the work of Dario Fo, the Italian iconoclast who specializes in lese majeste (he likes to poke fun at the Pope). In this it resembled Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, but it was smarter than that propagandistic montage, and braver -- delivered live, as it was, in the belly of the press-corps beast it was skewering.

So now we have the sad spectacle of the media desperately puffing air back into the popped balloon of the president's dignity, pretending that nothing happened. The Bush impersonator was funnier! cry the pundits. Colbert bombed! Well, they can sneer all they want about whether or not he slayed 'em in D.C. Out here in the reality-based community that increasingly encompasses the American electorate, Colbert hit his targets. And they will never look quite the same.


Michelle said...

Colbert's speech was sooooo amazing.

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Chris Dudley said...

The mainstream media would of course not find Colbert funny. They also happen to not find much of what the Bush administration is doing to this country to be disturbing. They're simply pollywogs in the pond.

What has happened is the boy has pointed out that the emporer has no clothes and the "adults" have all murmurred to each other that he does, indeed, have clothes. Fine clothes, in fact. And perhaps the boy shouldn't be so petulant around his elders.

Tom said...

Fine writing. Thanks.