Sunday, May 07, 2006

Two other takes on Colbert

I don't mean to keep pushing this, but there has been so much excellent on-line analysis of Colbert's performance, even as the corporate, mass media ignored it. This will be my last post about this for some time, I think.

James Poniewozik, the on-line television critic for Time Magazine has this to say:
Numerous attendees said that Colbert had "bombed" with an excessively harsh routine; commentators, mostly on the left, countered that anyone who panned his performance was a toady of the Administration.

Personally, I thought Colbert was good, if not his best; he flubbed a couple of jokes notably and recycled some lines from his own show. But he also got in some searingly acute shots, like the argument that, because "government governs best when it governs least" the government we set up in Iraq is outstanding. But I think that the people who said Colbert bombed reveal less about their political leanings than about their understanding of the media culture we live in now. The reason they think he flopped, of course, is that he didn't get many big laughs in the room. And once upon a time, that would have been what mattered. You might have caught the performance on C-SPAN, but really, who would have? So Colbert would have lived and died on how well he entertained the room, and how well the room spoke of him in the media the next day.

Today, however, thanks to the reposting of the Colbert video online, any of you who are curious about Colbert's performance have probably already seen it. 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.

In other words, what anyone fails to get who said Colbert bombed because he didn't win over the room is: the room no longer matters. Not the way it used to. The room, which once would have received and filtered the ritual performance for the rest of us, is now just another subject to be dissected online. Colbert—as he might say on The Colbert Report—"gets it." So does his patron, Jon Stewart, who similarly was said to have bombed at the Oscars because he turned off the stars in the theater with a snide performance that was much funnier to the (much bigger and more relevant) audience at home.

All of this, in other words, is yet another sign of how authority is fragmented and democratized in the Internet era—the top-down authority to assess and interpret for the masses that used to be much of the raison d'etre of the room. So if the room wasn't too amused by Colbert Saturday night, you'll have to excuse them. They don't have as much to laugh about anymore.
Emptywheel of The Next Hurrah uses Bakhtin's theory of the Carnival to analyze the White House Correspondents' Dinner and why Colbert's performance struck the chord that it did:
Mikhail Bakhtin popularized a way of thinking of pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations as that time when hierarchies of society are upended, when the poor dress up as kings and the kings clown around as grotesques. Add in a shared laughter, and Carnival--for one day or one week--manages to erase the hierarchical structure of society and infuse it with a little richness. Here's a description that may resonate:

Society is, in normal circumstances, ruled by the "head" (in medieval Europe, the court and the church). During carnival, hierarchy is not only suspended but inverted: The village idiot becomes king, sinners in priestly vestments preach nonsensical or blasphemous sermons. It is a space-time governed by what Bakhtin terms "the grotesque body" -- the joyously eating, drinking, screwing and odor-emitting regions of corporal existence, which the mind ignores or otherwise represses. Carnival is a reminder that the pope's shit stinks, too.


People disagree whether that makes Carnival revolutionary, because it challenges the rigidities of society's hierarchies. Or whether, by serving as a steam valve, it actually makes the underlying hierarchy more resilient. I kind of sit on the fence in this disagreement. Celebrated once a year, Carnival can only serve to reinforce hierarchies, because it implies everyone accepts limits on when one can ignore hierarchies. Though I accept that the process of highlighting the grotesque reality of the ruler can, if sustained, delegitimize it.

In any case, I think the White House Correspondents' Dinner normally serves the same function as Carnival. It's a time, once a year, when the White House and those who cover it can get together and laugh. Not just laugh, mind you, but laugh at the President. Pretend they don't normally buy into the protocol that strictly governs the behavior of both sides in the relationship. I suspect (siding with those who believe Carnival is not revolutionary) that the Correspondents' Dinner allows White House reporters to maintain the self-deception that they are not really subservient to the White House, thereby renewing their willingness to be subservient for the rest of the year.

But who knows what will happen after Stephen Colbert came in and broke the "rules" of Carnival? Carnival, after all, requires that the downtrodden may play king; they must be allowed to pretend to have power, for just this day, or the whole notion of Carnival loses its power. But rather than standing with journalists and laughing with them at Bush, Colbert first reinforced Bush's false position of power by saluting the President, mentioning illegal assertions of his power like the NSA wiretapping.

To actually sit here, at the same table with my hero, George W. Bush, to be this close to the man. I feel like I'm dreaming.

[snip]

By the way, before I get started, if anybody needs anything else at their tables, just speak slowly and clearly into your table numbers. Somebody from the NSA will be right over with a cocktail.


Then he showed how--powerful as Bush is--his power is nothing more than a facade.

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.


Had that been all, Colbert might not have ruined the party. He spent a lot of time reinforcing (rather than denying) Bush's power, but that probably could have been laughed off. But then Colbert turned on the celebrating Carnival goers and reminded them, in clear terms, that their willingness to cede their own power not only made them subservient, but propped up an empty figurehead.

Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, 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. Just put 'em 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!


It was one of the most vicious displays of the power of irony I've ever seen. With an artfully crafted use of his fictional persona, Colbert showed the press that they're still just weaklings to a weakling President. Colbert broke the rules of Carnival and all the press corps can say is, well, they've got nothing to say.

Still, I wonder what happens now, now that the press corps has been denied their annual Carnival fun. Will they grow angrier at Bush because they've been reminded of their weakness? Will they take the energy that they (and Bush) had hoped they would have expended in laughing at Bush, and instead use it to start reporting on what a fake he really is? Or will they sidle up closer to Bush for a while, like whipped puppies looking for security, because at least Bush played by the rules, he performed his self-deprecating role like he was supposed to. Good village idiot playing king, good President Bush.

2 Comments:

Blogger corsairbear said...

ahh, the carnival that is the internet. i'd never really thought about Bakhtin in connection with the blogosphere before. thanks for provoking some thoughts :)

1:22 PM  
Blogger Wulingren said...

Thanks. The thoughts are not mine; they provoked my thinking as well, so I posted them. I think Empty Wheel was using Bakhtin to interpret the White House Correspondents' Dinner, but I suppose the blogosphere is also like a carnival. Perhaps, someone with more of a grasp of Bakhtin's thoughts on the subject could comment on this.

9:22 AM  

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