Teenager: (sarcastically) Oh look, the cannonball guy, he's cool.
Another Teenager: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teenager: I don't even know anymore.
On April 29th, 2006, Stephen Colbert gave a speech to the White House Correspondents' Dinner, an annual event that is usually a chance for the White House press corps and the White House Staff, as well as other assorted celebrities to engage in some good natured satire, blow off some steam, and laugh at themselves. Stephen Colbert's speech seemed to have crossed the line, engaging in humor that was meant to increase tension rather than relieve it.
Stephen Colbert is in a special position when it comes to doing satire. He is not, as such, a real person, but is rather a satirical version of a right wing talk show host created for purposes of either humor or propaganda. As a persona, he is allowed a leeway in speaking that a real person would not be. His speech, after all, was not attacking the President, but rather lauding him in great terms. He didn't attack the media for going along with the administration's party line, but rather for failing to do so: all in such overstated terms that the message comes through very clearly, that the administration has reached the point of disaster.
Not having access to a television, I haven't seen the speech, but I have read a transcript of it. The routine is very well done, in terms of substance and style. Reading it, I can't imagine what it was like for Colbert to keep a deadpan style while openly mocking the most powerful man in the world to his face.
I am a fan of comedy. I am a fan of satire. I think that comedy and satire can sometimes say things that can not be said otherwise. But the fact that such an intense criticism of the Bush administration and its policies must come under the guise of satire makes me wonder about what is happening to political discourse in our country.
Much has been written in the past few years about the consolidation of media control in this country. I shouldn't even have to write that last sentence, since this trend has been acknowledged since before many people reading this were even born. And yet, in a country where the media is more and more controlled by a smaller number of people, we have a member of that media elite, employed by a media corporation, who can say, to the President's face, that he is a fuck-up. This type of open mocking of the President probably could not have occurred at any other time in America's history. This could not have occurred to Lincoln, or Roosevelt, or Eisenhower, or even Carter. We have moved to an era where an imaginary character can insult the president to his face.
As I said before, comedy can often say things that can not be said otherwise. In its pure form, the absurdity that comedy presents is a contradiction for no specific purpose. Political comedy is a type of applied comedy: it is meant to show people a contradiction, in the hopes that they will want to go out and solve it. Some satire has a visceral edge to it, where the person who hears it can't help but be angered. But some satire, especially the irony that seems to be so much part of our generation, seems to reinforce a type of coyness, where it is meant to distance the observer from their situation.
Why is it that the only person able to point out directly to the president the fact that most Americans are very unhappy with him is a comedic persona who speaks in terms of sarcastic enthusiasm? Is this a brave move meant to point out to people how ridiculous their situation has become, or is this a way for the intellectual middle class to ironically laugh at how stupid things have become, and then to continue about their business, pretending that the entire situation does not really apply to them?
The meaning of the quote I begin with may now be clear. That quote is about ten years old, and it is about time we decide whether or not we are being sarcastic or not.
A transcript of the routine/speech can be read at
And you can probably find a video of the speech/routine kicking around on the internet in many places as well, as many kind people have pointed out to me. I myself haven't viewed any of them, because I choose not to have that many video viewing programs on my computer.