Wednesday, May 3

"While We're Sure Mr. Parker and Mr. Gilespie Are Considered Highly Competent, We Were Led To Believe Mr. Welk Would Be Performing All Evening"

I had no intention of writing about Stephen Colbert's performance at the Correspondents' Dinner. Just of savoring it, and ignoring the wingnut backlash. Then I checked in with Robin yesterday morning and read "How I know that Dan Froomkin isn't a liberal blogger" and I realized it wasn't just the right-wing jackdaws pecking at Colbert; the fêted correspondent herd was stamping and snorting, too.

It turned out I was a day late, and the link took me to Froomkin's Tuesday column, which now covered the print reaction to Colbert instead of the event itself. I'm grateful that Dan had collected so much of that sorry mess in one place, and I'm forced to disagree with my friend Robin. In singing the Conventional Wisdom song one day, then penning a testosterone-free column on the controversy, Froomkin was behaving precisely as what passes for a liberal among Washington insiders.

Back up to Monday and the column Robin objected to. Froomkin wrote:
The boozy bonhomie of the annual event is intended to serve as a balm for the often tense relationship between the White House and the reporters who cover it.

Bush largely delivered on his side of the bargain. Colbert delivered something else entirely.
Now, perhaps you too find a hive of bees buzzing inside your head. Just as with last year's incredible performance when the First Lady delivered a monotoned monologue that had 'em rolling in the aisles, it's damn near impossible for me to believe that a roomful of insiders attending an event whose stated purpose is to poke fun suddenly go ga-ga because the Bushes proceed to read prepared skits which actually do so; and having watched both performances, there's simply no way I can describe either one as amusing. Hell, I can't even describe them as self-deprecating, since it's so obvious neither the President nor his wifebot believe a thing they're saying. It would be one thing to toss them a bone for the attempt. It's quite another to insist one actually found it funny. There's a world of difference between skewering yourself and poking imaginary fun at a caricature of your foibles. The former is a leveling experience. The latter just serves to build you up by pretending to knock yourself down. Neither Bush laid a glove on themselves, and anybody who doesn't see that is disqualified from acting as a public bullshit detector when it counts.

(And really, now, I understand this is not professional comedy, but for God's sakes, can't you find a lookalike who can make a fucking stab at the accent? It didn't take Bush himself too long to learn it. Or would that have hit something vital?)

So Colbert comes on, in the words of John Stewart, mistakenly believing he's been hired to do the thing he does four nights a week, and he doesn't go over. Okay, I understand that his comedy might be a little difficult for the Bob Hope mindset. Ann Althouse, who, to her credit, stood by her man, sort of, recognized that Colbert the actor couldn't just "supply some perfectly pitched stand-up humor, the way Drew Carey has done in the past," though perhaps if he'd borrowed Carey's practice of laughing at everything he says it might have eased the audience along. The fact that it pinched a lot of people in the audience in a tender spot is just a credit to its incisiveness, although to be honest much of that crowd seems to be tender all over. But to step beyond that and claim that Colbert wasn't funny? Horseshit, and whore's shit:
• I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.

• I stand by this man. 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.

• 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.

• But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they're super-depressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.
The reaction?
Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post's gossip column: "The reviews from the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner are in, and the consensus is that President Bush and Bush impersonator Steve Bridges stole Saturday's show -- and Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert's cutting satire fell flat because he ignored the cardinal rule of Washington humor: Make fun of yourself, not the other guy.
Huh? Colbert was hired to make fun of Colbert? I don't recall anybody saying that about Darryl Hammond doing his lame-ass Clinton impression in 2001. In fact, I don't remember anybody saying the dinner was supposed to poke fun at the current President, not the previous one.
Frank James writes in the Chicago Tribune's Washington blog: "I sensed a lot of uneasiness in the audience during Colbert's routine. It would make Republican partisans uneasy for obvious reasons.

"But I also had the sense that Colbert's toughness on Bush made people squirm because it raised that age-old question that goes back to the republic's start. How do you criticize the president without disrespecting the presidency?"

One order of Alien and Sedition Acts coming up for Mr. James.

On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann asked Washington Post political columnist Dana Milbank if Colbert crossed the line.

Milbank: "I don't think he really crossed the line. I just think he wasn't terribly funny. And he had the misfortune of following Bush, who actually did put on one of the better performances of his presidency."

He added: "The president's used to getting abused. He didn't get anything worse than he got at Coretta Scott King's funeral, which was certainly a bit more outlandish than this. So I think he probably comes out ahead in this whole thing."

Mrs. King's funeral was more outlandish than Colbert's routine? Sheesh, Dana, I sure hope you tip your caddie well.

Noam Scheiber, on The Plank: My sense is that the blogosphere response is more evidence of a new Stalinist aesthetic on the left--until recently more common on the right--wherein the political content of a performance or work of art is actually more important than its entertainment value.

Opinion noted, Noam. Thanks for refraining from going over the top. (Oh, and a side note: if you intend to convince us of your opposition to the Iraq war "from the get-go" it would probably help to link to a piece you wrote before July of 2005. That sort of thing merely encourages the utterly disinterested reader to start leafing through your blog entries for the relevant period. Like, you know, the one which suggested we should pretend to use diplomacy just to keep the little guys in line, while having no intention of being constrained while facing mass death at the hands of terrorists, or the one that questioned Al Gore's political motivation for objecting to Bush's Iraq plans. You know, the plans you opposed from the get-go.)

All I can say is, thank God I've had thirty years to absorb the mendaciousness of our Free Press; I'm not sure my youthful idealism, such as it was, could have withstood it. Oh, and thank God for Stephen Colbert, and some of the best and bravest writers in the biz.


Anonymous said...

Whomever booked Mr Colbert is planing a career change and probably a name change, too. Lot's o'credit due, though. Major balls.

Anonymous said...

You really do ream out media claptrap like an auger in balsa wood. In a world where Howard Kurtz passes for a media critic, consider yourself appreciated.

This whole Colbert thing reminds me of corporate meetings I've witnessed. The CEO's (Sales VP's, whatever) flacks want to make their boy look like a regular Joe who appreciates what the little people think. So they put him or her in some lame skit or appear in a cheaply produced green-screen video of the Matrix, and it's supposed to be funny in as insipid a way as possible. No one in the audience expects it to be anything more than fluff, and they laugh on cue and clap when it's over. What Colbert did was even worse than making his CEO barbs sharp, he aimed them at the audience. If pundits say he crossed a line, I think that's the one they're really upset about.

Anonymous said...

I guess the whole concept of the Loyal Opposition is truly passe' at this point. It went out the door with that great cargo bin of spines and balls (methaphorically spekaing for the women) that journalists jettisoned some time ago.

Anonymous said...

Did they book Colbert thinking he was a Rush-bot? Steven gets my love for laying some truthiness on both the press and the Preznit.

handdrummer said...

It's really a telling comment when the two bravest 'journalists' in the USA work for the Comedy Channel.

I'm gonna go eat a twinkie or two til I explode. That has to be more fun than this awful alternate reality I've stumbled into.

I am officially depressed again.

DBK said...

Had a winger on my site claim that Colbert wasn't funny because a newspaper story said Colbert wasn't funny. Holy shit! Are the wingers so far gone in their subservience to authority that they can't read a transcript or view a video and then laugh unless some authority tells them it was funny?

Anonymous said...

First of all, I just discovered your site this morning, but wish I had before! Brilliant analysis.

That said, I bet that Bush's handlers couldn't be happier with the way this has panned out, because now everyone's feeling sorry for his lame ass. His popularity is in the toilet. So now, Bush gets to have his own little pity party, and the journalists are all playing along because they didn't much like being skewered by Colbert either. "He's MEAN! I'm not a spineless twerp. Whine whine whine."

Colbert is a genius, by the way. He and Jon Stewart are the greatest pundits of our generation.

This reminds me, too, of when Tucker Carlson had Jon Stewart on his show. He thought he could bring on Stewart, have a little light comedy, then safely put him away. He didn't expect a challenge, he expected a clown, and Stewart was anything but. I don't know what the White House was thinking in inviting Colbert, but if they didn't see his barbs coming I would be extremely surprised.