Was Stephen Colbert funny? No, he was not being funny. He was being ironic, satirical, brutal. Don't you get it? These issues are just too painful for humor. Since Colbert's 20-minute routine at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner two weeks ago, the question has been asked and answered thus in the blogosphere, that underground realm of steaming resentment not exactly famous for the refinement of its irony, where the president is the "chimp," Laura is "his bitch wife," and the press is "the MSM."
It is time—it is always time—for some literary criticism. There is an interesting difference between watching Colbert on video (I was not at the dinner) and reading the text of his skit (available on dailykos.com). Colbert is not always funny on television: He sometimes fluffs lines, he has a limited range of facial expressions, and he is trapped in the jacket of his impersonation of Bill O'Reilly, condemned to a single parodic posture. At the White House dinner, all this was evident.
But the transcript is something else. To read it is to be subjected to a brilliant, relentless flow of the bitterest invective. There are plenty of funny cracks, if you are after the kind of comedy-by-committee that provides Jay Leno with his nightly ration: "By the way, before I get started, if anybody needs anything else at their tables, just speak slowly and clearly into your table numbers. Somebody from the NSA will be right over with a cocktail." Or: "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." Or: "I've got a theory about how to handle these retired generals causing all this trouble: Don't let them retire!"
But more interesting are those moments when Colbert's text is not funny: "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." As comedy, this is fairly feeble, and even less funny is Colbert's scolding of the press: "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."
Obviously enough, this is designed not to amuse, but to wound, to goad, to irritate. It is not comedy; the discourse has moved location, from the funhouse to the church, and it has become preachy and a little earnest. We are in the realm of the blogosphere. Again and again, Colbert chides the MSM in much the way that the alternative press does: "John McCain, John McCain, what a maverick! Somebody find out what fork he used on his salad, because I guarantee you, it wasn't a salad fork. This guy could have used a spoon! There's no predicting him." Actually, this last jibe is pretty funny, and it neatly pops both John McCain's ballooning self-regard and the tedious reverence of the establishment media.
And, pleasingly, the MSM have responded with delicious displays of their own inability to read. Richard Cohen, in a recent column in The Washington Post about how unfunny and "rude" Colbert was, commented on the following Colbert passage: "So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, `Oh, they're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.' First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!" On this, Cohen expounds: "A mixed metaphor, and lame as can be." Ah, Mr. Cohen, high-schoolers study "irony" in their English classes so as to avoid slips like yours. Remember your Chaucer? First of all, Colbert is supposed to be in character as a defender of the administration: His metaphor is deliberately comically inefficient. Second, the apparently "mixed metaphor" is itself a commentary on the "terrible" Titanic metaphor—it is supposed to be a second "terrible" metaphor, squared. Third, isn't this quite a nice dig at the stylistic laziness, the verbal narcosis, of most political commentary—of precisely the kind practiced by Cohen? (Perhaps it takes a terrible metaphor to recognize a mixed one.)
So we have a heaven-made circularity: Colbert, abjuring comedy for bitter irony, attacks the MSM like the bloggers do; the MSM decide not to mention Colbert, or decide that he wasn't funny, or was rude; and the bloggers get to cry foul, charging that this shows, at best, exactly what is wrong with the cloth-eared MSM—or, at worst, that a conspiracy to silence Colbert has begun. At which point the MSM, in their stolid, evenhanded way, write up the "controversy." Who can blame the bloggers? They are right that Colbert was often not trying to be funny, but to be insulting—and there is something breathtakingly, sublimely insulting about the way Colbert, in the midst of his rudeness, continues to use the words "sir" and "Mr. President" not ten feet from the man he is dressing down. And, if they are not right about a conspiracy of silence, they are right about the press's reflexive respect for authority, for only this can explain the chummy way in which, say, The New York Times first reported the event, with its relaxed and relaxing account of the comic genius of Steve Bridges (he was prepped in the White House!).
On this, I'm with the foul-mouthers, the underground men, the crazies, the semi-literates with their paranoid monikers. To anyone schooled in the Hogarthian brutalities of English journalism, U.S. newspapers have an astounding blandness and a sinister reverence for money, celebrity, and the simple authority of renown. Where is the daily political cartoon, or that hygienic invention of Grub Street, the Parliamentary sketch, in which you get to insult both sides of the aisle? What does it say of a newspaper that its most biting writers are those working in the style sections or reviewing films? It is no wonder that 54,000 people have written to thankyoustephencolbert.org: His routine was a good, savage op-ed piece. But not in the MSM.
James Wood is the literary critic for The New Yorker and author of How Fiction Works.