Stephen Colbert and the funny/not funny distraction

The defenders of the press shift the debate, and Ana Marie Cox proclaims the winner.


Tim Grieve
May 5, 2006 6:48PM (UTC)

Perhaps there should be some sort of statute of limitations over the back-and-forth on a comedian's performance, no matter how courageous or important or unfunny or insulting it may have been. But as Salon's Joan Walsh said the other day, Stephen Colbert's White House correspondents dinner gig is "a gift that keeps on giving," and Ana Marie Cox has just wrapped it up again in a way that we can't resist.

In a Web-only column for Time, the pundit formerly known as Wonkette dismisses the question of Colbert as a lefty spat over whether the man was funny or not. That may be the turf on which the defenders of the press want to fight, but it's not how the battle began. When press critics took up the Colbert case, it wasn't to argue for the inherent hilariousness of his routine. As Cox acknowledges -- before slipping right past the point -- Peter Daou "didn't actually make any specific claims as to the comedic value of Colbert's speech." Neither did Salon's Michael Scherer: While Scherer wrote Monday that Colbert's jokes hit their mark, he made it clear that what interested him was the idea of Colbert as "guerrilla fighter" who uses subversive irony as a weapon. When we first dived into Colbert's act, our focus was on why Colbert mattered, not on why he made us laugh.

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We were also focused -- as was Daou -- on why the mainstream media all but ignored Colbert's performance initially. Instead of addressing that question, the press (first the New York Times, then Richard Cohen in the Washington Post) argued that Colbert just wasn't that funny. It was a non sequitur -- so far as we know, the news value of an event doesn't usually turn on the number of laughs it gets -- but it was softer ground on which the press defenders could pitch their tents. When the press critics pushed back, Cox could claim that they were making a federal case over funniness and trying to enforce some kind of code of humor correctness. "This insistence on the hilarity of Colbert's routine has a bullying quality, implying that jokes which adhere to the correct ideology are hilarious and failure to find humor in the party line is a kind of thought crime," Cox writes. "By this logic, Cindy Sheehan should be hosting the Academy Awards."

Well, no. We have no interest in seeing Cindy Sheehan host the Academy Awards or anything else. But if she did -- and if, in the process, she put both the president and the mainstream press on the spot in a way that made them both visibly uncomfortable -- well, we'd expect the press to write words about it, and at least as many of them as it devoted to the shoes Morgan Fairchild wore to somebody's after-party.

As for Cox? Like the New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller, she'd apparently pretend that it just didn't happen. At the end of her funny/not funny ramble, TPFKAW finally gets to the question at the heart of L'Affaire Colbert -- was what he did important enough to cover? -- then quickly assumes it away. Colbert's performance means "less than what the ardent posters at ThankYouStephenColbert.org would like it to," Cox says, because "I somehow doubt that Bush has never heard these criticisms before."

Given what we know of George W. Bush -- the bubble surrounding him, the sanitized crowds allowed near him, the newspapers he doesn't read, the questions the press doesn't ask him -- we're not entirely sure why Cox would make that leap of faith. We're the first to agree that it shouldn't be news when the president of the United States is called on the carpet for wiretapping without warrants or starting a war for no apparent reason. But until we start seeing the sort of press questioning Colbert imagines or the Senate hearings Cox says she wants, the sort of thing that happened Saturday night will be news in our book -- regardless whether anyone's laughing or not.


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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