The truthiness about Stephen Colbert

The world is divided into two groups: Those who believe the world is divided into two groups, and those who don’t.

Kidding. The world is actually divided into these two groups: Those who think Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are political comic gods, and those who don’t.

Jon -n- Stephen

I fall into the latter category. The few times I’ve watched them on Comedy Central, I’ve found Stewart and Colbert reasonably entertaining, but far short of comic genius. Yet they’ve developed a fawning fan base of people who regularly pepper their conversations with “Did you see Jon Stewart last night?” As a conversational tic, it’s a successor to fixations on Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. And like those fixations, it breeds contempt for those who don’t share it.

So when Stephen Colbert received mixed reviews for his now-famous speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last week, the blogosphere suddenly went incandescent with flaming. Any writer who failed to give significant column inches to Colbert’s scathing monologue was obviously part of the media’s vast right-wing conspiracy. Any writer who dared express the opinion that it was not particularly funny was vilified as a tool of the Republicans. Colbert’s performance was, according to many bloggers, no less than a heroic manifesto, delivered by the only man in this country brave enough to face down the president.

Intrigued by last week’s kerfuffle over the speech, I watched the video online. Colbert gets in some zingers, all right. With Bush just a few seats away, he declares, “I stand by [Bush] 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 later, “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.”

This is good stuff. But overall, I found the monologue – all twenty-plus minutes of it, ending with a long comic video of Colbert being pursued by Helen Thomas – mildly, but not wildly, entertaining. I could understand why the response of the audience, which consisted of political correspondents, politicians and staffers, and random celebrities such as Morgan Fairchild and George Clooney, was lukewarm.

helen thomas

To clarify: I despise everything George Bush stands for. I believe Bush will go down in history as the worst president we’ve ever had. He’s bred a poisonously partisan environment, he’s fucked up a once-vibrant economy, he started an immoral war, he’s a Neanderthal when it comes to social issues, and on and on and on. Listen, Colbert-lovers: I didn’t love your man’s monologue, I didn’t think it was particularly brave or brilliant, and incredibly enough, I’m not a tool of the right wing!

In an email exchange last week with a regular reader of this blog,

bacon

I suggested that, if Colbert really delivered his monologue with the goal of slapping Bush’s metaphorical face, stirring up the masses and planting the seeds of revolution, then it was brilliant. But I don’t believe that was the case. I think Colbert simply mis-read his audience. I think he was probably sweating up at that podium, because he wasn’t getting the laughs he thought he would. I suspect he intended to be a little edgy—but not to leave the audience silent for long stretches.

In an interview with Editor and Publisher magazine just after the dinner, Colbert was asked if he thought he’d been too harsh. “Not at all,” he replied. So far, so good. He then was asked whether he was trying to make a political point, or whether he was just going for laughs. If, as so many in the blogosphere insist, Colbert was really trying to stir things up, he could easily have said, “You know, it’s time for someone to stand up and make these points.” Or, “This was my chance to speak truth(iness) to power.” But instead, he immediately answered, “Just for laughs.” Ooh, so brave.

The most odious part of all this is the rabid insistence within the blogosphere that the press coverage of Colbert’s speech is just more evidence that American journalists are (pick any combination): corrupt, ignorant, lazy, unethical, or morons. This is the current conventional wisdom about “the media” — that journalists are either complicit in unethical behavior, or just too stupid to root it out. Listening to some of the critics, you’d think it was the editors of the New York Times who sent troops into Iraq, and Washington Post reporters who destroyed New Orleans.

I know quite a few journalists. The majority of them are hard-working, honest, and exceedingly careful about trying to report in an unbiased way – which, if you haven’t ever tried it, is a hell of a lot harder to do than it seems. There’s an ongoing, vibrant debate in newsrooms across America about how to stay balanced and unbiased in reporting, as there should be. I would wager that the most vitriolic critics of the media would change their tunes if they spent just one afternoon in the newsroom of any of our major newspapers.

But no matter how hard reporters and editors work, there are always those who insist they’ve got a secret agenda. Media critic Howard Kurtz hosts an online chat on Washingtonpost.com, and every week, about a third of the commenters accuse the Washington Post of being a right-wing tool, while another third accuse the Washington Post of being a left-wing tool. News flash: You can’t really be both.

Bloggers have also attacked the press corps for even having a White House Correspondents Dinner in the first place. This, I can understand. It’s a bit too cozy — though not nearly as cozy as many seem to think. A couple of years ago at the dinner, when Bush showed a video of himself looking under White House furniture for those pesky WMD’s, reporters lost no time covering the outrage that followed. If they were truly in Bush’s pocket, they would have simply ignored it.

The jokes that Stephen Colbert made at the dinner are nothing we haven’t heard a hundred times before on David Letterman, Conan O’Brien or the Tonight Show. These were not groundbreaking insights; they’re things that pundits, editorial writers and comics have been harping on for years. The one thing that Colbert did differently was that he delivered his lines in front of the president himself. Good for him. It was either a gutsy move or, more likely, a miscalculation. But it was hardly an act of amazing heroism.

13 responses to “The truthiness about Stephen Colbert”

  1. Scott Godfrey says:

    The Bush administration is indeed working overtime to created the illusion that they are open to dissent; even Rummy went point by point recently with a war-rational questioner. This political strategy was created call the Bush “bubble” into question, create sympathy with fence-sitters, and to rally the right wingers behind their under attack president.

    I thank you for your essay, because to my mind, this stunt was nothing more than a part of the overall scheme to paint an incredibly inaccurate picture.

  2. brooke says:

    I admire both Colbert and Stewart for their work and their senses of humor. I think they’re pretty funny and I also think they provide much needed satirical criticism of the administration and the failure of news agencies (particularly television news, not so much print media) to report on real news and ask the difficult questions.

    But I agree that Colbert’s speech at the Correspondent’s Dinner wasn’t very funny. It was kind of flat. But the fact that he stood there and blasted Bush and his posse under a thin veil of sarcasm was, in my view, pretty rich. The one thing that I thought was both funny and ballsy was when Colbert made several obscene gestures while addressing Justice Scalia (a reference to an apparently obscene gesture that Scalia made while leaving a church service). The guy essentially flipped off a Supreme Court Justice several times to his face. Funny and bold.

  3. brooke says:

    As an aside, I’m surprised that Salon still has the video. CSpan (the copyright holder) sent take down notices to both YouTube and iFilm, both of whom complied (story here). CSpan and Google video reached an agreement to have the video posted on Google Video, so if you want to watch this video and don’t find it on Salon, YouTube or iFilm it is now available here.

    /b

  4. Lisa Parrish says:

    There were two interesting pieces on washingtonpost.com today: first, a column by Richard Cohen describing the wild flamefest that ensued after his earlier column saying Colbert wasn’t funny. What’s irksome about this huge overreaction on the part of Colbert’s fans is that it smacks of the kind of same right-wing rigidity of opinion that drives most liberals crazy. It’s absurd how worked up people have gotten over this.

    Also, here’s Gene Weingarten’s take on why Colbert’s speech missed its mark. Weingarten is not only a very funny guy, but he’s also a connoiseur of humor. Some good points in here.

    “Stephen Colbert made some serious humor errors in what was at its mean little heart a completely fearless and brilliant presentation. These errors were so serious they undermined its effectiveness and produced what was, in the end, something of a failure. He needed an editor, apparently didn’t have one, and it cost him dearly.

    His biggest tactical error was in constantly addressing the president, sitting to his right: “This man here…” It made the whole thing seem like a cheap assault, because Bush was defenseless, and just had to sit there with an insincere smile on his face. Cobert could have told the identical jokes (which were mostly ostensibly about himself) without shooting himself in the foot, as he did. Almost everyone in the audience was uncomfortable, for a reason. Journalists tend to have highly developed senses of humor — but they also have a highly developed sense of fairness.

    Colbert’s second mistake was technical: He started badly. A big mistake. You want your first few jokes to really work. His first few jokes were wince-inducers, and that cast a pall on a room that really wanted to laugh.

    His third mistake was the audition tape. Just not worth it.

    So that’s the bad stuff. It was a shame that stuff was there, because the good stuff was pretty transcendent….

    …It was an almost great performance. But, sadly, it wasn’t a home run. It was a solid triple to deep left center, but Colbert got thrown out at home trying to stretch it to a homer.”

  5. Jarespond says:

    Re: your point about people not “totally on the Colbert bandwagon” being branded as part of a right-wing conspiracy…

    Rather than re-post what I’ve already written, I’ll direct you to a link regarding C-Span’s decision to ask IFILM and YouTube to remove the video of Colbert’s performance from their sites. I’ve seen people claim that it’s a conspiracy, when it’s a simple copyright matter.

    For the post: http://www.progressiveu.org/blog/jarespond

  6. Lisa Parrish says:

    Thanks, Jarespond. This liberal obsession with conspiracies is like a new, freakish virus. I don’t remember left-wing paranoia being so pronounced before. And the tone of it is so vitriolic and aggressive. Is that just the result of having 6 years (give or take a few months here and there) of Republican domination of the legislative, judicial and executive branches? Will this all fade whenever we win back the Presidency or the House / Senate?

  7. Dave says:

    I don’t think there was a conspiracy; conspiracies are pretty rare. But take New York Times White House correspondent Elizabeth Bumiller’s first (and without the flap, would-have-been-only) report on the dinner. It didn’t mention Colbert’s routine at all. She did discuss Bush’s funny (in a predictable way) routine with the Bush impersonator. I don’t attribute that to a pro-Bush conspiracy on the part of the “MSM” — I attribute it to peevishness on Bumiller’s part. And given Bumiller’s history of serving as a willing transcriber of White House dicta and writer of puff pieces, it seems she identifies more closely with the powerful people she covers than with the public she is supposed to stand as proxy for, or the skeptical, adversarial press that our tenuous democracy needs. I imagine Colbert’s line telling reporters to go home and write the story of a tough and skeptical reporter who will stop at nothing to get to the truth behind official lies — “you know: fiction” — hit her, and other reporters like her, where it hurts.

    For the record, I think Jon Stewart is hilarious and should be hosting the Tonight Show. Colbert I haven’t seen much, since I don’t have cable, but there’s a great clip floating around of him grilling William Kristol in a hilarious and devastating manner. I thought some of his Correspondents’ Dinner jokes fell flat, others were great but understandably didn’t get much of a laugh, and the video clip at the end was way too long.

  8. Lisa Parrish says:

    Much has been made of Colbert’s jokes at the press corps’ expense — such as the “fiction” line you quote, Dave — but the overall sense of Colbert’s monologue and (especially) video was that the press is constantly hounding Bush, who sidesteps everything. In the video, there’s a whole montage of real White House correspondents asking very tough questions, with Colbert-as-fictional-press-secretary dodging them. In fact, some of hte criticism Colbert has taken for his routine was that his jabs were far too one-sided: you’re supposed to make fun of the administration and the press equally at this thing, apparently, which he did not.

  9. Lisa Parrish says:

    Also, re: Elisabeth Bumiller’s piece. Her “White House Letter” dispatches are not news stories. She has no obligation to cover the entire dinner, just to choose an element that interests her and report it out — which she did, interviewing several people and giving background info about the Bush impersonator, who had made much more of a splash at the event than Colbert did. Perhaps Dave is right — perhaps she was so thin-skinned about Colbert’s one comment that she deliberately snubbed him. More likely, she chose to spend her 600 feature words on something that seemed at the time of more interest.

  10. bacon says:

    Thanks for the visual, Parish. My reactions, in increasing order of importance (no one is safe tonight):

    –First, I know from personal experience that you are really, really funny. But I don’t trust you when you tell me whether something is funny or not. I’ll be the judge. No more “was he funny?” debate.

    –Second, Colbert didn’t “bomb”. Re-watch the video. Knowing exactly what he was doing, he most obviously took the opportunity delivered to him (not “brave”, I agree, since he will suffer no consequences other than being freed of performing the same duty next year) to publicly humiliate the President and the Press. No conspiracy…just a chance to form a humble answer to granddaughters who will ask “what did you do to resist the Great Unraveling of the US Empire?”

    –Third, Cohen’s Washington Post article, calling for preserving the civility and integrity of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (as opposed to, say, the Constitution, the United Nations, or even the Geneva Convention), was something I hope about which he will someday admit deep shame. It simply validates Colbert’s “comedy scetch”.

    –Finally, and addressing the real issue, I am quite sure your journalist friends are intrepid. As someone who has personally and publicly been outed as being “incompetent” and “asleep at the wheel” on professional matters for taking diplomatically nuanced views, I understand what your friends are up against. But I also know when professional watchdogs are really asleep (are the words “Judith Miller” not enough?). Compare the press reaction to the now-ironically-amusing Watergate coverup (for those who can remember), Lewinsky (same), and WMD-torture-Iraq. Let’s please all recognize that the press, as a body, has failed miserably in calling this administration to task.

  11. Lisa Parrish says:

    Aha, Bacon! I knew you were out there somewhere!

    If I may respond briefly to your points:

    – “I don’t trust you when you tell me whether something is funny or not. I’ll be the judge. No more ‘was he funny?’ debate.”

    To clarify: I don’t mean to say that no one found him funny. Humor is, of course, subjective. I’m saying that many people found him not particularly funny, and not because they’re stupid or brainwashed by the right wing (which seems to be the argument of many bloggers). It’s just not indicative of some moral shortcoming to say he wasn’t funny.

    –”Second, Colbert didn’t ‘bomb’. Re-watch the video.”

    Even those who thought he was funny have, for the most part, acknowledged that he got a lukewarm reaction. I think the video speaks for itself.

    – “No conspiracy…just a chance to form a humble answer to granddaughters who will ask ‘what did you do to resist the Great Unraveling of the US Empire?'”

    This is the kind of Colbert-worship I’m talking about! I just don’t belive he had his granddaughters and his legacy as a political freedom fighter in mind when he did this monologue, sorry. To be fair, I don’t know him personally, so I’ll never know for sure. But as I mentioned above, he could have made a much more powerful statement if he’d said afterward, “Someone needs to stand up and say these things.” If he’d done that, perhaps I’d be prostrating myself in front of him like you are. But he didn’t. He faded back into his comic persona and let the argument rage on around him.

    –”Third, Cohen’s Washington Post article, calling for preserving the civility and integrity of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (as opposed to, say, the Constitution, the United Nations, or even the Geneva Convention), was something I hope about which he will someday admit deep shame. It simply validates Colbert’s ‘comedy scetch’.”

    Richard Cohen is a blowhard. His initial column was certainly stupid in places. My point was more about the flaming response he got. It used to be that the left displayed a certain level of civility, especially compared to the wild name-calling of right-wingers on cable TV and talk radio. But that gap seems to have closed.

    As to your last point, “Judith Miller” has become shorthand for every terrible thing the press is supposed to represent. Yes, she screwed up. Yes, she appears to have been in the administration’s pocket. But she is, I would argue, an anomaly. Could the press have done a better job leading up to the war? Yes. Is that why we’re at war? No. I’m sick of the spotlight constantly being thrown off Bush and onto the press about why we’re at war. Bush is the gulity party here, and all the press-bashing in the world won’t change that.

  12. Bacon says:

    Lisa, as Letterman once said to Bill O’Reilly, I’m not smart enough to debate you point-by-point, but I get the impression that about two-thirds of what you say is crap.

    But let my try to respond anyway:

    Let me start by pointing out that the correct term for us Colbert worshipers is “Colbert Huggers”, thank you.

    The debate about whether Colbert “bombed” is missing the point. I believe he had no intention of trying to be funny in a way that gets hearty laughs. He was lecturing Bush and the press under the guise of delivering a “comedy sketch”. If he had elicited hearty laughter, he would have failed. Appropriate? No. Correct? Yes.

    Judith Miller an anomaly? If so, a pretty damn important one (“incestuous amplification” by the country’s most respected newspaper). But I don’t think she is, and this is where the real issue lies—forget about the blip of Colbert’s performance. Something happened that shut down the media’s skepticism during 2001-04. The overly-timid press response to WMD and the Osama-Sadaam link in the run-up to the war is pretty much accepted as truth, already admitted by a good number of protagonists in the press. Just compare the US press coverage with the much more focused, critical coverage by the British press (not surprising, since the Financial Times is arguably the best newspaper in the English-speaking world). And let’s not even get into TV, where the coverage by the BBC (owned by our only real ally in the “coalition of the willing”, the UK government [!]) was much more insightful and critical than anything on CNN. The only country where the media bought into the WMD argument was the US.

    No one is arguing that the press “caused” the war. But I’m all for press-bashing when it is well deserved. I want to understand what the hell happened.

  13. Lisa Parrish says:

    “I get the impression that about two-thirds of what you say is crap. But let me try to respond anyway…”

    I hope you’re a little more civil in your discussions with the Chinese.
    .