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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

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May 2, 2006 07:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Great analysis, Chris. This is worthy of wide attention - maybe as a link on Sullivan's blog? I'll send it over, and your readers should, too.


John Palmer:

May 2, 2006 08:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

Well said....

There's one other thing that I think a lot of people missed about this. Colbert did his normal schtick, as I understand it. I admit, I haven't ever watched him, but I've heard multiple sources say that this is exactly what he does: he pretends to be a rightwing commentator, but mocks the things rightwing commentators do, by just getting a few things wrong... like, the bit about "rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenberg (instead of the Titanic)" because the administration is "soaring, not sinking".

He's playing a Limbaugh or Coulter; all the hate, all the intelligence, but none of the cunning or polish.


May 2, 2006 09:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

One clarification: I misunderstood the Associated Press's role in the dinner. Although Mark Smith, the outgoing president of the White House Correspondents' Association, is a White House reporter for the AP, the dinner was sponsored by the WHCA. Smith defends both the selection of Colbert as the final act of the night and the general mainstream media perception that Bush's routine really did steal the show. ("WH Correspondents Dinner Planners Brush Off Criticism," Joe Strupp, Editor & Publisher 5.2.06)


May 2, 2006 09:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

I hadn't heard about it until my sister told me about it. She read me part of the transcript and I killed myself laughing.

I'm so proud of my old college pal. I am awed by the way he has combined comedy, acting and scatching political satire to truly speak truth to power. I'm going to write more on my own blog.

joe in oklahoma:

May 2, 2006 10:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

good comments. Colbert as King Dubya's Fool.

as i watched Colbert Saturday night, i laughed at the same time my jaw dropped. he did his usual schtick, deadpanning an O'Reilly type.

his humor was a witness to truth.

the reason the press has downplayed it is because he criticized their coverage of the president as much as he did the president. the most pointed of such lines was: "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."


May 2, 2006 10:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

As someone on the radio said today (maybe it was Randi Rhodes?) -- the fact that hardly anyone laughed proves there's no "liberal media" anymore.

I think your analysis/analogy of the fool is great.

Scott Wells:

May 3, 2006 12:47 AM | Permalink for this comment

I've watched, I've heard -- I'm not getting the adulation. Colbert was in character -- I watch his show most days; his timing stunk, but he can be forgiven his nerves -- so the viewing public has seen this before.

We've seen how self-insulating the President et alia have been. I don't expect him to change or change tack.

If Colbert is the fool, it is to say what many Americans have been thinking, and that doesn't seem to be reflected in the Administration so far.

So why all the wonder? the celebration? Are we just that hungry?

h sofia:

May 3, 2006 01:34 AM | Permalink for this comment

He didn't say anything many of us hadn't thought about or said to each other. But he said it looking the President in the face. That takes guts that I haven't seen in a long time.

Scott Gerard Prinster:

May 3, 2006 01:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

Scott, I would say, yes, we are just that hungry. The adultation comes from seeing the President's seamless bubble popped, and the sycophant media shamed for their passivity.

Patrick Murfin:

May 3, 2006 05:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

Originally posted at "Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout"

By now the known universe has heard of Stephen Colbert’s savagely funny speech Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The buzz about it has swept the internet and Blog-o-sphere. The right sputters with outrage, the left cheers. Thank You Stephen Colbert is a web site created just so folks could send the man compliments. Thousands have. Below is my contribution.

Flash--President George W. Bush was admitted to Bethesda Navy Hospital today. A White House source, who plead for anonymity or "Cheney will have me killed," reported that Bush was suffering from a dangerously inflamed anus. "It looks like a baboon's."

Medical sources at the hospital reported that the injury occurred when the President's chair caught on fire. They believe a rare allergic reaction to comedian Stephen Colbert's remarks at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner combined with a heavy late night snack of chili cause the release of super-heated methane.

The Intelligence Service of the Dutchy of Grand Fenwick leaked an intercepted Secret Service lapel pin radio transmission to Seymour Hirsh of THE NEW YORKER. On the 15 second tape an excited agent is heard to yell, "He's such a flaming asshole, he ignited the furniture!"


May 4, 2006 05:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

I tried finding the video online but it appears to have been removed due to "copyright infringement." Anyone know a different link? Would love to see it live.


May 4, 2006 05:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

It should also be here in the C-SPAN archives, but it only loads a "not found" code in my QuickTime. C-SPAN appears to have challenged the YouTube versions as copyright infringements, but I can't find an explanation of its disappearance from C-SPAN's own archives, where videos usually stay online for two weeks.

Steve Caldwell:

May 4, 2006 08:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

I like this journalist "litmus test" for Colbert's comments from John Browner, a reader:

"If you thought it was funny, you understood it.

If you thought it wasn't funny, it was about you."

Steve Caldwell:

May 4, 2006 08:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

The video (in QuickTime and Windows Media Player formats) can be found online here:


May 4, 2006 09:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the link, Steve. I've updated the link in the post to take people to the video at Crooks and Liars. It's also available at ifilm in three parts. (The original video I saw was at YouTube, but appears to have been taken down in response to a copyright complaint.)

Since so much of the commentary about Colbert divides the world into people who found him "funny" and people who didn't, I just want to point out that I was astonished a whole lot more than amused. I'm not defending his funniness; in my post I'm only saying that he was acting out a very ancient form of comedy that happened to be barbed in a way that I think Bush has earned. I didn't think the evening was funny; I thought Colbert's routine (and everything it drew on) was profoundly disturbing — and newsworthy.


May 5, 2006 06:40 AM | Permalink for this comment

You know what, I'm going to amend what I just said. Last night, after writing that comment, I showed Mrs Philocrites the video — and much of the live part of his routine really was funny. Maybe the recording, as it gradually takes on a life of its own, is less shocking as political theater. At any rate, I laughed much more the third time I saw it than I had the first or second time.


May 5, 2006 07:06 AM | Permalink for this comment

"If you thought it was funny, you understood it.

If you thought it wasn't funny, it was about you."

Exactly right!


May 5, 2006 08:40 AM | Permalink for this comment

Time's TV critic grasps the point I and many others have made:

Colbert wasn't playing to the room, I suspect, but to the wide audience of people who would later watch on the Internet. If anything, he was playing against the room—part of the frisson of his performance was the discomfort he generated in the audience, akin to the cringe humor of Da Ali G Show. (Cringe humor, too, is something probably lost on much of the Washington crowd at the dinner, as their pop-culture tastes tend to be on the square side.) To the audience that would watch Colbert on Comedy Central, the pained, uncomfortable, perhaps-a-little-scared-to-laugh reaction shots were not signs of failure. They were the money shots. They were the whole point.

(Stephen Colbert and the Death of 'The Room,'" James Poniewozik, Tuned In 5.3.06)

Jeff Wilson:

May 5, 2006 11:54 AM | Permalink for this comment

Finally had a chance to watch the video. It was very funny, and I also kept thinking "Oh no he didn't!" I like the analysis here, I think it's on the mark. This is why The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are among the funniest, and most relevant, things I've seen on TV in a long time.


May 6, 2006 05:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

The live bit can be viewed via Democracy Now at

I think that the video with Helen Thomas, which I thought was the weakest part of the whole thing, is available via Comedy Central.


May 6, 2006 01:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thank you Chris for pushing what's true. After watching the routine for the first time this morning, your analysis is the most helpful I've found.

h sofia:

May 8, 2006 03:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

I didn't like the Helen Thomas video while watching it, either. It didn't make me laugh. Upon later reflection, however, I realized it was important because it essentially makes the point that politicians must be pursued by truth seeking journalists, no matter how absurd it may seem. It also has kind of an ominous feel at the end when Colbert thinks he's gotten away but finds that he has been captured by Thomas. A friend of mine pointed out that this video's target audience is probably the reporters in the room.

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