Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Bush and Colbert, Lear and the Fool.
Stephen Colbert's 25-minute satirical attack on the Bush administration and the press at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on Saturday was shocking in its audacity (see the video [starts at 50 minutes; link updated 12.28.06]; read the transcript). It's disconcerting that most of the news coverage of the event didn't mention Colbert's routine, which immediately followed the president's own self-ribbing, because it certainly seemed unprecedented for a comedian to stand barely ten feet from the most powerful man on earth and rather ruthlessly satirize him and the media establishment for almost half an hour. Some people at the dinner — most notably the president and the first lady — clearly didn't think it was funny. I didn't laugh very often, either — I watched in amazed disbelief — but I am grateful that someone had the opportunity and the gumption to play the fool.
Remember King Lear's Fool? The jester in the play doesn't crack Bob Hope one-liners or play the lute; he introduces a very dark kind of comic relief. He satirizes Lear's misjudgments. He's the only person who tells Lear the truth, even though Lear can't bear to acknowledge the full significance of his mistakes until the end. He makes Lear mad, too. When his impersonations cut too close, Lear threatens to whip him. Their exchanges aren't funny ha-ha; they're funny oh-no. The Fool's sharp parodies of the king intensify the tragedy of what we're seeing. And that's an ancient function of comedy that I couldn't help but see in Colbert's shtick.
But unlike President Bush, Lear depends on his Fool — and when the Fool tells him that he wishes he could lie (the truth being so painful to report), Lear snaps back: "And you lie, sirrah, we'll have you whipped." The Fool replies:
I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They'll have me whipped for speaking true; thou'lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace. I had rather be any kind o' thing than a Fool, and yet I would not be thee, Nuncle: thou hast pared thy wit o' both sides and left nothing i' th' middle. (I.iv: 185-193)
Stephen Colbert's routine was uncomfortable to watch because it highlighted the tragedy of our national predicament. The politicians and journalists at the dinner complained that Colbert's routine was inappropriate, that he wasn't "funny." They are clearly missing the newsworthiness — and the cultural significance — of what happened. Colbert wasn't addressing them at all; he was addressing us, and that's why the video is spreading around the web like wildfire. He was given a rare opportunity to step into the center of the sealed bubble of the elite media's relationship with the government, and he decided to play the fool and call Washington's bluff.
Who, after all, is supposed to be telling the truth? And who is the "king" in this country, anyway? The sovereign in a democracy is the people, and journalists really answer to us as consumers but more importantly as citizen-readers, not to the government. They ask questions on our behalf. Here's the uncomfortable question Colbert was asking: Would we rather whip the media for telling us golden lies or for telling us the unpleasant truth? Colbert's character — the one on stage on Saturday — argued that we want to whip the media when it tells us the truth and deviates from the White House storybook. Ouch. The playwright, though, the intelligence behind the character, was suggesting something else altogether — and that's why the journalists and the politicians deserve to squirm.
Two small points: Colbert must have realized that his invitation was a one-shot deal premised on his show's fleeting political pop-culture status. As a comic and an outsider, he had nothing to gain in trying to get invited back next year for his congenialty, so why not say exactly what he wanted to say, just as Jon Stewart refused to play his appointed part in his famous interview with Tucker Carlson? Finally, someone at the Associated Press, the sponsor of the dinner that is ultimately responsible for inviting Colbert, must have known they were playing with fire. I suspect the AP, or even the entire press corps, will pay for Colbert's insouciance.
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 2 May 2006 at 6:40 PM