It wasn't. He was. He did. Thank
Colbert is an ironist first, a satirist second. His performance Saturday night was the apotheosis of the style he invented on The Daily Show and perfected on The Colbert Report. It was a ball of irony so tightly wound, it was a microscopic point, really -- a dense concentration of pure matter, a singularity with enough contained energy to rip a hole right into another dimension.
By the traditional standards of comedy, he wasn't funny. He was disrespectful. He bombed.
But his act is to traditional comedy what Picasso is to
First things first. In a certain sense, Colbert's performance was biting satire in the tradition of -- and, in my opinion, at the level of -- Pope or Swift. Everyone* understands that he's playing a character and doesn't really believe the things he's saying. That's Level 1, freshman year irony.
[*In the aftermath of the WHCD, some people claimed not to have heard of him before. (Or maybe that's just meta-irony.) I wonder whether Mr. 9:30 Bedtime President had.]
And just as clearly, the basic content of his monologue can be understood as a direct rebuke of the administration and its enablers. In that sense, it had much in common with Jon Stewart's famous "Stop hurting America" takedown of the Crossfire gang a few years ago, which led to its cancellation.
It was not comedy. It was an indictment. It was an accusation. It was, as I read somewhere in Left Blogostan today, Hamlet putting on a play within a play to catch the conscience of a king.
There were laughs. The crowd laughed loudest at the throwaway non-sequitirs. D.C. is the chocolate city with the marshmallow center? Wha?? Anytime he went [set up --> punchline], the crowd responded automatically, believing there must be a joke in there, even when it was the most inane absurdism. They were eager to keep up a spirit of bonhomie. And that is where he killed them.
There is a notion that has been growing over the last decade or so, and particularly since Dubya's ascendancy to power, that the media is too chummy with the ruling classes, whether in business, entertainment or government. The WHCD is the prime example of this inside-the-Beltway Masters of the Universe mentality. The comedic performers are expected to do a variation on the late night Leno/Letterman topical political monologue, but considerably more jaded and worldly than they do for the rubes every night at 11:30. It's a semi-private command performance for the in crowd. The politicians play along, a prime example being last year Laura Bush when joked about Dubya milking a male horse. Paint-by-numbers comedy.
Colbert threw it all aside. Like Stewart on Crossfire, he refused to be anyone's monkey:
CARLSON: Wait. I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny.
STEWART: No. No. I'm not going to be your monkey.
But it's not Colbert's style to make a direct announcement. Instead, he took the paint-by-numbers set and turned out a cubist masterpiece. Like Picasso, he was showing multiple sides of the same thing simultaneously. He showed us the "joke." He showed us the joke not working. He showed us the deeper truth revealed by both the joke and its failure. He showed us, while standing ten feet from the president in a room full of D.C. journalists, the spectacle of a man failing at his job. He was being ironic. He was killing Bush with false flattery. He destroyed McCain with one throwaway line. He had his tongue in his cheek. But most of all, he utterly savaged the Washington press corps(e), hitting them with some of his best lines -- and they weren't funny!
People criticized him for focusing on Bush instead of the press. He eviscerated the press. They were his main target; Bush was more of a means to an end, another tool in his arsenal.
He wasn't funny. But criticizing his performance as failed comedy is like saying Hamlet's play before the king was lousy drama. It's like criticizing Picasso for not drawing a "realistic"-looking girl.
Colbert's performance was a deadly serious wake up call. That's the punchline -- Fuck You, I'm Not Gonna Come Here And Be Your Monkey -- Go Do Your Fucking Job, Quit Kissing Up To These Assholes, And Stop Hurting America. And it's no joke.