Friday, May 05, 2006

On things that are, apparently, not funny

Okay, so normally, I wouldn't really care what Richard Cohen has to say about Stephen Colbert. The latter is about twenty times funnier than the former, and better looking to boot. But Cohen just happens to be syndicated in the AJC, and I just happened to read him over my Cheerios this morning, and now here I am.
First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy.

Yeah, but looks aren't everything.
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.

And, judging from this column, it really, really can't. But I'm glad his fourth-grade classmates thought he was such a hoot.
This, anyway, is my standing for stating that Stephen Colbert was not funny at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. All the rest is commentary.

Thanks for the warning.
The commentary, though, is also what I do, and it will make the point that Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude. Rude is not the same as brash. It is not the same as brassy. It is not the same as gutsy or thinking outside the box. Rudeness means taking advantage of the other person's sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving. The other night, that person was George W. Bush.

I totally agree. It would have been one thing if Bush had shown up at the Correspondents' Association Dinner with the knowledge that, at such dinners, fun is usually poked at the president. Or if, say, he'd shown up with his very own Dubya impersonator to poke fun at himself. But to take the piss out of our president when all he wanted in the world was a dry chicken breast and a glass of sub-par Chardonnay? That's unthinkable.
Colbert made jokes about Bush's approval rating, which hovers in the middle 30s.

I will admit, I find Bush's approval rating terribly unfunny.
He made jokes about Bush's intelligence, mockingly comparing it to his own. "We're not some brainiacs on nerd patrol," he said. Boy, that's funny.

Our president's inability to Scotch-tape together a cohesive sentence? Also unfunny.
Colbert took a swipe at Bush's Iraq policy, at domestic eavesdropping, and he took a shot at the news corps for purportedly being nothing more than stenographers recording what the Bush White House said. He referred to the recent staff changes at the White House, chiding the media for supposedly repeating the cliche "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" when he would have put it differently: "This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg." A mixed metaphor, and lame as can be.

It's a good thing Colbert's entire schtick doesn't center around mixed metaphors and malapropisms. It's also good that he hasn't developed a character whose entire appeal arises from his grandiosity and unselfconscious faux-intellectualism. 'Cause Richard Cohen says that that's not funny, and Richard Cohen knows from funny.
Why are you wasting my time with Colbert, I hear you ask. Because he is representative of what too often passes for political courage, not to mention wit, in this country. His defenders -- and they are all over the blogosphere -- will tell you he spoke truth to power. This is a tired phrase, as we all know, but when it was fresh and meaningful it suggested repercussions, consequences -- maybe even death in some countries. When you spoke truth to power you took the distinct chance that power would smite you, toss you into a dungeon or -- if you're at work -- take away your office.

So remember, folks: if you tell the truth, but you don't get fired for it, it's actually lies. Lies, all lies.
But in this country, anyone can insult the president of the United States. Colbert just did it, and he will not suffer any consequence at all. He knew that going in. He also knew that Bush would have to sit there and pretend to laugh at Colbert's lame and insulting jokes. Bush himself plays off his reputation as a dunce and his penchant for mangling English. Self-mockery can be funny. Mockery that is insulting is not. The sort of stuff that would get you punched in a bar can be said on a dais with impunity. This is why Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.

A bully! Oh, noes! Our poor, defenseless president, who only has the executive branch, the judicial branch and both houses of Congress to back him up. Sending tens of thousands of troops off to get maimed and killed in a war over WMD that didn't actually exist, giving government subsidies to oil companies that have been dragging in record profits month after month after month and wiretapping American citizens without benefit of a warrant in direct violation of the Constitution are no reason for ridicule! Poor schnookums.
I am not a member of the White House Correspondents' Association,

Oh, don't tell me...
and I have not attended its dinner in years (I watched this year's on C-SPAN).

... Ouch. Invitation get "lost in the mail," Cohen?
The gala is an essentially harmless event that requires the presence of one man, the president. If presidents started not to show up, the organization would have to transform itself into a burial association.

I hear that joked killed back in fourth grade.
But presidents come and suffer through a ritual that most of them find mildly painful, not to mention boring. Whatever the case, they are guests. They don't have to be there -- and if I were Bush, next year I would not. Spring is a marvelous time to be at Camp David.

I think we'd all love for Bush to take some time off next year. Say, maybe, the whole year. But I think that encouraging Bush to puss out on the Correspondents' Association Dinner because they's all mean and hurt his fee-fees isn't going to do much for his approval rating (which we know to be in the 30s, because Colbert spoke truth to power).
On television, Colbert is often funny. But on his own show he appeals to a self-selected audience that reminds him often of his greatness.

Whereas Bill O'Reilly leaves himself open to taunts from a diverse audience and suffers the slings and arrows like a brave little soldier. And I understand that Days Of Our Lives often films live before an audience of Guiding Light fans, just to keep them on their toes.
In Washington he was playing to a different crowd, and he failed dismally in the funny person's most solemn obligation: to use absurdity or contrast or hyperbole to elucidate -- to make people see things a little bit differently. He had a chance to tell the president and much of important (and self-important) Washington things it would have been good for them to hear.

I know that George Carlin's political commentary is what's kept him in high heels for decades now. Let this serve as a warning to all up-and-coming comedians: Your act can't be funny if it isn't educational. Remember to tell your audience things that they need to hear, unless you're saying things that they need to hear that might offend the sitting president of the United States.
But he was, like much of the blogosphere itself, telling like-minded people what they already know and alienating all the others. In this sense, he was a man for our times.

Maybe they were alienated by his unfunniness. Maybe they were alienated by the fact that he took them to task about as solidly as he did the president. I suppose we'll never know.
He also wasn't funny.

And, in retaliation, neither was Cohen.

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