The Corner

Some Thoughts on Colbert

Speaking of Colbert, a recent left-wing attack — by a writer at the website The Baffler — on him and his Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart helps me understand the sources of his appeal:

What Stewart and Colbert do most nights is convert civic villainy into disposable laughs. They prefer Horatian satire to Juvenalian, and thus treat the ills of modern media and politics as matters of folly, not concerted evil. Rather than targeting the obscene cruelties borne of greed and fostered by apathy, they harp on a rogues’ gallery of hypocrites familiar to anyone with a TiVo or a functioning memory. Wit, exaggeration, and gentle mockery trump ridicule and invective. The goal is to mollify people, not incite them. 

[Stewart is] a media celebrity who works for Viacom, one of the largest entertainment corporations in the world. Stewart can score easy points by playing the humble populist. But he’s as comfortable on the corporate plantation as any of the buffoons he delights in humiliating.

How dare these comedians prefer “wit, exaggeration, and gentle mockery” to “ridicule and invective”! How dare they eschew the central function of comedy, which is, obviously, to “incite” people against “the corporate plantation” and the “concerted evil” of those who don’t happen to share a particular political agenda!

I really think it’s time to update the old classic:

Q. How many leftists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. That’s not funny.

The author’s specific attack on Colbert is quite revealing, too:

Colbert’s mock punditry reinforces a dismissive view of actual corporate demagogues. Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly and his ilk come off as laughable curmudgeons, best mocked rather than rebutted. . . .

His visit to Iraq in June 2009 amounted to a weeklong infomercial for the U.S. military. . . . Colbert’s first guest, General Ray Odierno, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, was treated to questions such as, “What’s happening here that’s not being reported that you think people back home should know about?” The hulking general then gave the host a buzz cut, as a crowd of several hundred uniformed soldiers roared.

Colbert himself acknowledged his reverence for the troops in interviews leading up to his visit. (“Sometimes my character and I agree.”) So it wasn’t exactly shocking that the shows themselves were full of reflexive sanctification of the military. Soldiers, by Colbert’s reckoning, aren’t moral actors who choose to brandish weapons, but paragons of manly virtue whose sole function is to carry out their orders — in this case “bringing democracy” to a hellish Arab backwater. This is an utterly authoritarian mindset.

I think there’s an authoritarian mindset at work here, but it’s not Colbert who’s guilty of it. It is rather, the author of this hit piece who has been overtaken by the authoritarian fever: He’s basically denouncing talented comedians for not fitting into his Procrustean mold of what comedy ought to be, and for failing to express his own politically correct view. His piece has done me an immense service, by making me realize why I prize Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart: I like them because they are good at what they do, because they make me laugh, and because I have the underlying sense that their chief motivation is a decent one: to provide some entertainment, and even a little uplift, to American audiences in a difficult time. The Baffler writer devotes much of his piece to proving this last point, which he seems to believe constitutes a devastating indictment. He calls the work of Colbert and Stewart an “almost entirely therapeutic” attempt to “congratulate” the viewers, and criticizes the viewers for “accept[ing] coy mockery as genuine subversion.”

But what if we, the viewers, don’t want genuine subversion of the exact same things you happen to want to subvert? Furthermore, what if we don’t mind laughing even about some things we agree with? Both Colbert and Stewart make fun of some of my own political views. I was thinking of saying that I like them in spite of this; it might be more accurate to say that I like them, at least in part, not in spite of this but because of it — because I don’t want to live in a country where people can’t laugh at themselves, and where everybody takes himself and his own opinions as seriously as the Baffler guy seems to.

(NB. I recommend that anybody interested in a) comedy and American culture or b) what’s wrong with the left wing in this country read the whole piece.)

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