Until yesterday, I knew nothing about the year’s most devastating and entertaining evisceration of the Bush Administration. Then I read Salon’s Video Dog column and learned of the wickedness Stephen Colbert had perpetrated on our beloved president and his worshipful followers in the White House press corps.
This past weekend marked the annual White House Correspondents dinner which roasts the president. Usually there is a comedian like a Jay Leno who makes some slightly witty wise cracks about the president & it’s all in good fun. Everyone laughs, a little tension is excised fr. the body politic & everyone goes home little the worse for wear.
But Colbert, the political satirist behind The Colbert Report (itself an offshoot from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show), took his task very seriously. He decided that he was going to roast Bush with real flames. It was savage, it was funny, it was a tour de force of political satire. Jonathan Swift would’ve been proud.
But I have to say that watching it makes you VERY uncomfortable. It’s like watching a Brecht play. You know you’re watching a play but it’s unlike any play you’ve ever watched before. It’s a play that deconstructs what it means to be a play. It distances you from everything you thought you knew about plays.
And as you watch Colbert play a right wing, sycophantic Fox News-like political pundit, you know that this fellow is taking a metaphorical switchblade to the profession and to his president. And George Bush is sitting only 10 feet away! And Colbert has the temerity to hail him as he’s skewering him in delicious irony. It’s a breathtaking act.
Another layer of alienation is provided by the audience which is nervous beyond belief. The White House press corps is used to an adversarial relationship with the president. But they know they’ve got to go along to get along. So while they may periodically be angry at him or feel betrayed by a press secretary’s lies, they’re not going to expose or bite the hand that feeds them. They know that this Dinner is supposed to be mild fun, taking satire just up to the edge but never over it.
Well, Colbert said: “Fuck that. Baby, I’m goin’ all the way.” And in this segment he certainly did:
Addressing the reporters, he said, “Let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The president makes decisions, he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction.”
No one looked pleased (except Antonin Scalia who took Colbert’s ribbing about his Sicilian “fuck off” gesture in rollicking good humor). Not Bush (smiling but noticeably not laughing), not Laura (who refused to shake the comedian’s hand), and not the crowd (which mostly didn’t know what to do with itself).
This was the kind of political satire that would make Aristophanes proud. Humor that slashed, that bit, that wiped away the coruscations of mendacious political discourse with an acid wash.
I didn’t really “get” Colbert’s performance until I read this penetrating column by Michael Scherer at Salon called, somewhat disappointingly, The Truthiness Hurts. It’s really much better than the title implies and well worthy reading. I urge you to watch this video footage (part 1 and part 2). You won’t be disappointed.