Monday, May 01, 2006

The Role of Satire

I think that laughter is the result of two intertwined thought processes: release of mania (laughing about the talking squirrel) and the release of scorn (laughing at the talking squirrel). A good satirist can mix these two things together in such a way that your laughter is magnified beyond merely one or the other. Stephen Colbert delivered a monologue in the voice of his Colbert Report character at the White House Press Corps Dinner that I found incredibly funny, but seemed to make the Press Corps uncomfortable just as much as the President. I’ll link to this page, which has a smattering of ways to see or read the performance, and not spoil any of the jokes here.

The effect was very similar to Jon Stewart’s Academy Awards opening monologue, in which some actors revealed that they don’t actually like being made fun of. In contrast, George Clooney, who was at both of the events under discussion here, appeared to enjoy it just as much as Justice Antonin Scalia enjoyed Colbert making a series of dirty Sicilian gestures at the Press Corps dinner. They both laughed and engaged in some lighthearted heckling, in comparison to a gradually less and less amused President Bush.

The media reports that I’ve seen so far this morning have omitted this or barely mentioned Colbert at all. Mostly, they have focused on Bush appearing with a Bush impersonator who spoke clearly only to have the President gaffe up his lines (newklier made an appearance). We are meant to enjoy this; the President is showing us that he can take a joke, that he realizes that his being president is a little crazy and he welcomes criticism. Except when he has to sit through actual satire, the melding of one man’s recognition that this situation is insane and worthy of mocking, he is no longer insulated and no longer having fun.

The fact that Colbert managed to get through his entire act while feeling the increasing anxiety in the room is indicative of either his brilliance or his indifference. He called the Press Corps spineless, showed that no one mongers a war like this administration, and revealed Helen Thomas as the lumbering and voracious Elder God that she is.

Most importantly, he showed that satire grown popular is the last refuge of a populace that has grown dejected in their current society. Our generation is making The Daily Show, South Park, and The Colbert Report popular because they’re tearing down the government and the media with no interest in replacing it. I know these shows skew towards Democrats (South Park less so than the others) with softball questions during interviews, but the satire paints Democrats as washed-up and spineless just the same. You can watch nightly as Jon Stewart repeatedly shows that the world is speeding towards madness and he’s not sure there’s anyone able to stop it. It looks like it’s physically taking a toll on him even as it’s making him relevant and rich.

This, unfortunately, is the true role of satire. Colbert, Stewart, H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, Ambrose Bierce, Voltaire all spewed their ideas into societies that felt powerless in the face of inhumanity and had no recourse other than laughter, but nothing changed immediately. It was only when someone who had laughed came into power could they refrain from perpetuating what they now found ridiculous. The satirist has to hold this future as the last defense against all-consuming cynicism and misanthropy. Colbert spoke truth (or truthiness) to power and power has never changed by holding up a mirror; it’s being played repeatedly on CSPAN now, however, so perhaps enough people are seeing this to move us back to where the only thing we had to laugh at was a horny President and general hypocrisy throughout the rest of the government.


Anonymous qkslvrwolf said...

I'm still tracking this one via google news..its fun to go there every couple of days and do a search for colbert.

Thanks to both you and Candice for pointing this one out..I may have missed it otherwise. Its definitley a bright spot in a dark time. :-)

6:10 AM  

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