Posted by: Jon Fine on October 23, 2007
You may have heard, thanks to lavish mainstream media pick-up, that Stephen Colbert is “running for President”—of South Carolina, at least.
About that mainstream media pick-up: The straight-faced absurdity that Colbert pulls on a nightly basis—-his willful tone-deafness, the way in which it so closely resembles televised reality—-is the gag we all laugh at. But what underpins it is the acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of the entire façade erected by television news, and especially television news about politics, and the false choices it forces onto everything. (Colbert, of course, has mastered the false-choice. As he likes to ask: “George W. Bush: Great President … or greatest President?”)
There is nothing friendly about this acknowledgement. It’s angry.
This anger, as with Jon Stewart’s, is always there, even if it’s hidden, and surfaces only in moments like the White House Correspondents Dinner, that orgy of self-regard briefly disturbed in 2006 by Colbert ripping the mask off the entire charade. (I myself knew I had landed deep in the Twilight Zone at the 2005 White House Correspondents Dinner. Laura Bush was on the mike, where she’d cracked yet another stilted joke or uttered the phrase “Desperate Housewives, and all around me the esteemed press corps of DC were doubled over in hysteria. And my non-DC-insider’s eyes were in disbelief: did they actually find this funny?)
It is no surprise that Maureen Dowd turned over a column to him, or Tim Russert “took him on” last weekend on Meet The Press. They want some kind of rub-off from Colbert. DC is Hollywood for the student-government geeks, to paraphrase a cliche, but they’re all still aching for proof that they can be part of a more popular crowd. In Colbert’s case, they want to be in on the joke.
But they miss the key point. The essence of Colbert’s humor is not laughing-with, it’s laughing-at. There is cruelty at the heart of what he does—nothing wrong with that, by the way—which either escapes the likes of Dowd and Russert or it’s simply over their heads. The problem is not that official Washington cannot take a joke, or is insufficiently in-on-the-joke. In the Colbert and Stewart worldview, the problem is official Washington itself.
And both Colbert and Stewart are still laughing at it.