Missing in all the heated discussion of Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondents dinner was an appreciation for what it means to "bomb" onstage and whether something is funny if the audience doesn't laugh.
It's kind of like how, in all the discussion about the White House's reported intention to drop bunker-busting nuclear bombs on Iran's atomic weapons facilities (another topic I'm three weeks late in discussing), no one on either side seemed to be talking about the theory of, you know, nuclear deterrence.
So, while a lot of people talked about how humor is "subjective" (and it is, though I hate that phrase because it's the last refuge of people with bad taste), the first thing that ought to have been established in each instance of the "debate" over Colbert's performance is that "bombing" does not equal "failure" -- just because something bombs, doesn't mean it wasn't funny. In certain cases, and some people did make this point, the silence of the audience is an indication of a routine's success. But another thing to understand is that, in the performing arts, bombing can rise to the status of a heroic act. In many cases it's easier to spot the heroism in retrospect -- the talented artist whom history has vindicated glimpsed in full glory, going down with the torpedo-riddled ship, unwilling to bend to audience expectations.
Arianna Huffington was astute enough to bring up Bob Dylan's performance at the Newport Folk Festival, when he was roundly booed for going electric. ("It's not that his band was playing electric instruments," more than one critic no doubt said at the time, "The problem was that his songs just weren't that good.") Stevie Ray Vaughn got a rude reception at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. Charlie Parker was reviled when he first tried out his bebop improvisations onstage. How often, in fact, in the arts, does it transpire that the genius is misunderstood by the contemporary public? The point is not that Stephen Colbert is Vincent Van Gogh, but that being appreciated by an audience is not the full measure of an artist's success. And in the case of comedy, if the audience is the satirist's target, the audience's failure to "get it" is inverse proportional to the comedian's achievement.
I would make a parallel to Andy Kaufman during his wrestling phase, a lurid saga of dramatic irony that left many people thinking he had completely lost his mind (which he may have). His success was in getting the unsophisticated wrestling fans to hate him with a febrile intensity.
There was certainly no shortage of inane commentary. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has been the recipient of well-deserved derision not just for stating that Colbert wasn't funny, but for justifying his assessment by saying, "You may not know it, but I am a funny guy. Ask my friends." It was a fatuous blunder that calls to mind to mind no less of a hipster than Milhaus of The Simpsons -- "My mom thinks I'm cool!"
A) You just never say this. If you have to explain the joke, then it's not a good joke. If you have to tell people you're funny, then you probably aren't.
B) I can identify just a little bit with Cohen's perspective, in that, when I tell certain people that I aspire one day to write comedy in one form for another, I expect them to say, "But you're not funny." Be that as it may, I would never be so foolish as to insist that I was a funny guy in a nationally syndicated column.
C) Even though one sometimes hears about straightlaced-seeming people being cut-ups in private, that doesn't apply here, because if Cohen were funny, then clearly that sense of humor would have manifested itself in his work at some point or another over the years.
Cohen's worst offense though was to call Colbert, without irony, "a bully" who was taking on the poor, helpless president, whom propriety constrained from defending himself. This reminds me of a David Brooks column a few months back in which he explained that the Bush administration was being cautious with respect to Iran because, unlike armchair pundits, the White House knows it has to worry about the repercussions of its decisions. The fact that he didn't include a disclaimer to the criticism that flows logically from his assertion -- something along the lines of, "Of course, the Bush administration acted with far less circumspection when it invaded Iraq" -- is what makes Brooks the myopic, doddering emu that he is.
So Cohen thought Colbert was a bully. Wasn't there someone else in that room with the reputation of being a bully? Isn't George W. Bush the condescending nickname-bestower who uses humor as a weapon to gain power over others? Someone who from the very beginning, if one believes any of the anecdotes about his time at Andover and Yale, operated from a sense of entitlement that made him impervious to the jibes he dished out? The guy who publicly humiliates those who fall out of his favor (see Paul O'Neil and Larry Lindsey)?
George W. Bush is in fact the foremost bully in American society, who has run roughshod over the press, not to mention the constitution and just about anything that has gotten in his way. So a comedian gives it back to him one night and it's unseemly?
For those who were politically or aesthetically inclined to receive Colbert's presentation, that was part of the beauty of it -- the bully being bullied -- and the reason why so many liberals' heads exploded with glee. Bush finally got some measure of comeuppance. I've had to sit here and watch this president lie to me and talk to me like I'm retarded ("See, that's what freedom is. It's when people are free"), powerless to do anything about it, for six years. Now one of the most sophisticated comic minds in mainstream culture is taking his words and actions apart and revealing their absurdity and stupidity. That was a cause for celebration.
Ana Marie Cox, the blogger formerly known as Wonkette, was nowhere near as off-base as Richard Cohen, but she did have the wrongitude to say, What's the big deal with what Colbert said? Bush has heard all this stuff before.
How any intelligent observer of the Bush White House could make this statement is beyond me. Bush is a self-described non-reader who by all accounts doesn't dip his toe into the mainstream of discourse and is surrounded by people who tell him about a world that most of us wouldn't recognize. (There was one famous example of him not having heard of an idea that was on all the major editorial pages. I'm trying to remember.)
So no, Wonkette, I don't think Bush had heard all these criticisms before. Nor do I think he had them expressed to him satirically. Nor in public. Most important, he'd never been forced to listen to them before. He couldn't dismiss or fire or make fun of the annoying person who was saying bad stuff that upset him.
There's a reason that the saying, "Out of sight, out of mind," entered the lexicon. It's a fundamental truth that it's easier to dismiss or ignore something, it's easier to delude oneself, when that something is not in your presence. (The phrase may also say something, more broadly, about how, as much as the human mind has developed since we moved up from caveman status, our cognitive function still relies on our basic sensory perception.)
Bush had his so-called "accountability moment" in 2004. At the correspondents dinner, he had his Alex in "A Clockwork Orange" moment, as he was strapped to the proverbial chair with his eyelids pried open. The only thing missing was the eye drops.
Ana Marie Cox's husband, Chris Lehman, had a number of pronouncements on Colbert, whose timing was "dreadfully off" and whose persona "gets wearily one-notish in person." Colbert came off as "shrill and airless." Those in attendance failed to laugh because "such behavior is usually reserved for material that comes off as funny."
But Lehman wants to have it both ways, because, after dismissing liberal complaints about how the performance was received by saying it wasn't funny (though he plays it safe by saying on two occasions that Colbert "came off" as unfunny), he goes on to say that perhaps Colbert's "biggest problem" was that the people in the audience "were not remotely equipped to calibrate irony, intentional or otherwise."
So on the one hand the members of the media in the audience are wholly unsophisticated but on the other hand if they don't laugh at something, we should take this as an accurate reflection of whether that something was funny?
Lehman said he didn't like either act that night, Colbert or Bush-and-the-Bush-impersonator, writing, "Who, I must plaintively ask in the high ardor of pop-cult disenfranchisement, speaks for me?"
Yikes. Ana Marie Cox is married to this guy? Good luck with all that.
The skit with Bush and his impersonator got me thinking Bush imitators generally.
Let's just dismiss this Steve Bridges guy who did the bit with Bush at the correspondents dinner. First of all, while he does have some of Bush's mannerisms down pretty well, there's a lot of stuff he misses. More important, if you require two-and-a-half hours of make-up to get into to character, which he does, then you are by that very fact not a good impersonator.
The best I've seen is Frank Caliendo, a stand-up comic whom I saw for the first time on Letterman a couple months ago. It's incredible. He gets it in a way that no else I've seen does. Most comics do a voice that is some variation of what Will Forte does on Saturday Night Live, which is more of a caricature than an impersonation. Caliendo's voice is different, less drawly and laconic, more gravelly.
Caliendo appears on Mad TV, which I don't really like and hardly ever watch, but I may have to start watching more often just for his impersonations. His John Madden impression is f'ing ridiculous. My only problem is that he gratuitously ridicules Madden, calling him dumb, which rubs me the wrong way, because regardless of his flaws, I love John Madden.
From the beginning in 1999, and this has been written about at length, impressionists did Bush a favor by portraying him as a sort of likeable dimwit. Will Ferrell's Bush wasn't at all like the real Bush, but Will Ferrell is Will Ferrell, and so the skits were funny.
Then, once Ferrell left SNL, the torch got passed to Forte (there may have been a stop in between, I'm trying to remember). Forte is still playing him as a likeable dimwit, but times have changed since 2000. We know now that while Bush is not the brightest guy in the world, his is an essentially cunning personality. So to keep on portraying him as a doofus who doesn't know what he's doing is a) off-base and therefore b) not as funny as it could be, since satire should be as close to the bone as possible and c) doing Bush a favor.
Here's an example: In the wake of that first Kerry-Bush debate in 2004, when Kerry wiped the floor with Bush, who didn't look prepared, the SNL writers seized on Bush's fallback line that the campaign in Iraq was "hard work." "It's hard!" Forte said over and over in the show's mock debate, looking as if he wanted to crawl into the fetal position. "It's hard work."
That was funny, but the writers never let go of that theme, even after the election, when Kerry was dispatched. They ran at least one segment where Seth Meyers as Kerry calls Bush at the White House and Bush feels jealous of the Mai Tai-sipping Kerry, who is relaxing on a beach. But anyone who's paid the slightest attention to Bush knows that this is the exact opposite of the truth, which is that Bush would never feel the slighest jealousy in that position, because he wants and craves the duties of the Oval Office, which he feels he was called by God to execute in the wake of 9/11.