Make no mistake, Stephen Colbert is a dangerous man — a bomb thrower, an assassin, a terrorist with boring hair and rimless glasses. It’s a wonder the Secret Service let him so close to the president of the United States.
But there he was Saturday night, keynoting the year’s most fawning celebration of the self-importance of the D.C. press corps, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Before he took the podium, the master of ceremonies ominously announced, “Tonight, no one is safe.”
Colbert is not just another comedian with barbed punch lines and a racy vocabulary. He is a guerrilla fighter, a master of the old-world art of irony. For Colbert, the punch line is just the addendum. The joke is in the setup. The meat of his act is not in his barbs but his character — the dry idiot, “Stephen Colbert,” God-fearing pitchman, patriotic American, red-blooded pundit and champion of “truthiness.” “I’m a simple man with a simple mind,” the deadpan Colbert announced at the dinner. “I hold a simple set of beliefs that I live by. Number one, I believe in America. I believe it exists. My gut tells me I live there.”
Then he turned to the president of the United States, who sat tight-lipped just a few feet away. “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.”
It was Colbert’s crowning moment. His imitation of the quintessential GOP talking head — Bill O’Reilly meets Scott McClellan — uncovered the inner workings of the ever-cheapening discourse that passes for political debate. He reversed and flattened the meaning of the words he spoke. It’s a tactic that cultural critic Greil Marcus once called the “critical negation that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems.” Colbert’s jokes attacked not just Bush’s policies, but the whole drama and language of American politics, the phony demonstration of strength, unity and vision. “The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady,” Colbert continued, in a nod to George W. Bush. “You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.”
It’s not just that Colbert’s jokes were hitting their mark. We already know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the generals hate Rumsfeld or that Fox News lists to the right. Those cracks are old and boring. What Colbert did was expose the whole official, patriotic, right-wing, press-bashing discourse as a sham, as more “truthiness” than truth.
Obviously, Colbert is not the first ironic warrior to train his sights on the powerful. What the insurgent culture jammers at Adbusters did for Madison Avenue, and the Barbie Liberation Organization did for children’s toys, and Seinfeld did for the sitcom, and the Onion did for the small-town newspaper, Jon Stewart discovered he could do for television news. Now Colbert, Stewart’s spawn, has taken on the right-wing message machine.
In the late 1960s, the Situationists in France called such ironic mockery “ditournement,” a word that roughly translates to “abduction” or “embezzlement.” It was considered a revolutionary act, helping to channel the frustration of the Paris student riots of 1968. They co-opted and altered famous paintings, newspapers, books and documentary films, seeking subversive ideas in the found objects of popular culture. “Plagiarism is necessary,” wrote Guy Debord, the famed Situationist, referring to his strategy of mockery and semiotic inversion. “Progress demands it. Staying close to an author’s phrasing, plagiarism exploits his expressions, erases false ideas, replaces them with correct ideas.”
But nearly half a century later, the ideas of the French, as evidenced by our “freedom fries,” have not found a welcome reception in Washington. The city is still not ready for Colbert. The depth of his attack caused bewilderment on the face of the president and some of the press, who, like myopic fish, are used to ignoring the water that sustains them. Laura Bush did not shake his hand.
Political Washington is accustomed to more direct attacks that follow the rules. We tend to like the bland buffoonery of Jay Leno or insider jokes that drop lots of names and enforce everyone’s clubby self-satisfaction. (Did you hear the one about John Boehner at the tanning salon or Duke Cunningham playing poker at the Watergate?) Similarly, White House spinmeisters are used to frontal assaults on their policies, which can be rebutted with a similar set of talking points. But there is no easy answer for the ironist. “Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function,” wrote David Foster Wallace, in his seminal 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram.” “It’s critical and destructive, a ground clearing.”
So it’s no wonder that those journalists at the dinner seemed so uneasy in their seats. They had put on their tuxes to rub shoulders with the president. They were looking forward to spotting Valerie Plame and “American Idol’s” Ace Young at the Bloomberg party. They invited Colbert to speak for levity, not because they wanted to be criticized. As a tribe, we journalists are all, at heart, creatures of this silly conversation. We trade in talking points and consultant-speak. We too often depend on empty language for our daily bread, and — worse — we sometimes mistake it for reality. Colbert was attacking us as well.
A day after he exploded his bomb at the correspondents dinner, Colbert appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” this time as himself, an actor, a suburban dad, a man without a red and blue tie. The real Colbert admitted that he does not let his children watch his Comedy Central show. “Kids can’t understand irony or sarcasm, and I don’t want them to perceive me as insincere,” Colbert explained. “Because one night, I’ll be putting them to bed and I’ll say … ‘I love you, honey.’ And they’ll say, ‘I get it. Very dry, Dad. That’s good stuff.’”
His point was spot-on. Irony is dangerous and must be handled with care. But America can rest assured that for the moment its powers are in good hands. Stephen Colbert, the current grandmaster of the art, knows exactly what he was doing.
Just don’t expect him to be invited back to the correspondents dinner.