Magazine | February 6, 2012, Issue

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Stephen Colbert’s NPR LOL

If everyone who used the acronym “LOL” were actually engaged in the act of Laughing Out Loud, the world would be ringing with the happy sound of laughter pretty much all of the time. It would be an irritating place to live, but you couldn’t say it wasn’t mirthful.

Mostly, of course, they’re not laughing. They may be smiling wryly or nodding in agreement or noting in a subdued fashion the wit behind a statement, but they’re not laughing out loud. They’re agreeing.

Laughing out loud — as opposed to LOLing — is what happens when someone says something or does something that catches us off guard and compels us to emit short, staccato barks. Laughter is involuntary. We don’t know when it’s going to sneak up on us, and that makes it pleasurable — and a little alarming — when it does.

So when Stephen Colbert, the fake host of a fake conservative talk show on Comedy Central, announced that he’d formed a “super PAC” — one of those free-ranging political-action committees that are allowed, thanks to the Supreme Court’s weakening of the ham-fisted McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-“reform” initiative, to run sharp and mean and interesting political ads on television — the only honest response to the news was to sit down and quietly text an “LOL.”

It wasn’t actually to laugh, of course, because you can see the whole joke marching down the street. There is zero chance that anything that comes out of this enterprise — the public appearances in South Carolina, the “commercials” that are shot and aired — is going to sneak up on anyone. It’s all been preapproved and wiped clean of the kinds of surprising things that cause actual, involuntary human laughter.

That’s by design, of course. Stephen Colbert — and his partner on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart — hew to a fairly predictable lefty line. It’s not MSNBC left, or The Nation left — though they earn a lot of LOLs from that crowd, no doubt. It’s more along the lines of the Good Taste Left — NPR, The New Yorker, that sort of thing. Which is why the whole idea has a certain geriatric quality to it. What Colbert is trying to do, in his pompous persona that represents, to his LOLing viewers, a sharply etched blend of the entire lineup of Fox News, is mock the primary process and the idea of super PACs especially.

Oh, my aching sides.

#page#Let’s go to the tape, shall we? In the first ad produced by Colbert’s PAC — entitled, in pure LOL bait, “Attack in B Minor for Strings” (get it?) — he takes after Mitt Romney’s statement, made at the Iowa State Fair in August, that corporations are “people.” So if corporations are people, the ad says, and Mitt Romney shuttered dozens of companies during his tenure at Bain Capital, that makes him a “serial killer.”


Look, if this kind of thing is funny to you, then don’t let me stand in your way. Go ahead and LOL all you want. But notice, if you would, that you’re not actually laughing. No one has caused those involuntary explosions of breath to burp unexpectedly from deep inside you.

Nothing snuck up on you. It’s exactly what you expect from Stephen Colbert. He’s a liberal pretending to be a conservative — you can tell that instantly, because he’s playing a moron, and all conservatives are morons, see? — and he’s rich enough to set up a real super PAC to mock arcane campaign-finance rules and the current Republican frontrunner.

It’s not funny. It’s what we call “NPR funny.” And, predictably, the Good Taste Liberals are eating it up. The rest of us, not so much.

Even the rest of us who watch Comedy Central, for that matter. Ask any Colbert fan what the highest-rated show is on Comedy Central, and they’ll probably say The Colbert Report or The Daily Show, or, if they’re really paying attention, South Park.

But the highest-rated show on Comedy Central is a raucous and profane show called “Tosh.0” — it’s essentially a show in which a snarky, politically incorrect comedian, Daniel Tosh, shows video clips from the Web and makes fun of the folks in them. It’s about what you expect — a little gross-out humor, some sexual stuff, a lot of truly surprising racial material — but it manages to do something amazing in every episode. It manages to make you laugh. Out loud. Despite yourself, despite Good Taste — Tosh.0 sneaks up on you, like all good comedy, and before you know it you’re barking out laughter.

Tosh.0 is over-the-top and pretty off-color, mostly. It’s certainly not intended to elevate the national conversation. It’s comedy, not satire. And the folks at Colbert no doubt think that they’re making a powerful political statement though satire.

They’re not, of course. Satire is an iffy proposition under any circumstances — the great playwright George S. Kaufman famously said that “satire is what closes on Saturday night.” But to be really effective, it’s got to sting.

Not the subject — it’s easy to sting the powerful and the pompous: campaign-finance rules, political candidates, these are the softest targets around — but the viewer. That takes courage and fearlessness, which are two things absent from The Colbert Report and abundant in Daniel Tosh, which is why Tosh is funny and Colbert is NPR funny.

The Colbert Report — and the predictable, jokeless super PAC — are all about reinforcing Colbert’s audience’s smug self-regard. It’s not about anything as crass and mysterious as laughter. It’s all about “getting” the joke — because if you get it, you’re in the cool crowd, the smart crowd, the Good Taste Liberals. That’s the soothing message of Colbert — we’re smart, we get it, we don’t need you to laugh. We’re happy with your LOLs.

Rob Long — Rob Long, Hollywood writer and producer, started his career as a screenwriter for the TV show Cheers. He is a regular writer for National Review, Newsweek International, and the Los ...

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