Was Stephen Colbert Funny?

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The low point in the fake controversy over Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner came when Gawker — the cracked mirror by which much of the media views its navel — ran a poll to determine whether, in fact, Colbert's routine was funny. The poll determined that Colbert was an American hero, which may or may not make him funny, but the fact of the poll's existence sure is. Talk about the politicization of comedy. Next we'll get focus groups and image consultants ("Those clown shoes need to be three inches longer if you want to bring in the soccer moms") and Joe Klein will write a book about how no one does improv anymore.

The blogospheric debate — whining, really — about the mainstream media's "silence" on Colbert rumbled into existence with a post by Peter Daou. Almost 18 whole hours after the performance, Daou determined that the shtick — or, as one commenter put it, "a work of staggering genius that could only be pulled off by a man with testicles the size of Alpha Centauri" — was being ignored by the mainstream media in order to "shield Bush from negative publicity." Daou even intuited why they didnít laugh: because they were shamed "when Colbert put them in their place."

Daou didn't actually make any specific claims as to the comedic value of Colbert's speech, though if he were aiming to write something that would make Saturday night's entertainment funny by comparison, he certainly succeeded. Daou also succeeded at throwing down a bloggy gauntlet, and numerous other commentators took it upon themselves not only to deride the mainstream media for "ignoring" Colbert (true, aside from coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and all the major wire services) but to argue that the relatively lackluster response Colbert received from his live audience was somehow empirically incorrect: He was funny, dammit, and if you didn't laugh, the only possible explanation is that you are an Administration lackey transcribing Scott McClellan's exact words with one hand and stabbing Joe Wilson's wife in the back with the other. At the media criticism forum on the Poynter Institute site, one correspondent channeled the audienceís reaction through what appeared to be the voice of the Fonz: "Stevie is a bad boy. He's not cool. He's not one of us."

Salon's Michael Scherer went so far as to claim that it wasn't "just that Colbert's jokes were hitting their mark," but that he "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." Colbert attacked both Bush and "the whole drama and language of American politics, the phony demonstration of strength, unity and vision." All during the dessert course, no less. The Salon piece also drafted Situationist writer Guy Debord as a character witness on Colbert's behalf, who cited the comedian's brilliant "semiotic inversion." Bringing in a French theorist to help you prove someone is funny is like asking a structural engineer to show why Pamela Anderson Lee is attractive: They can help explain how it's done but you still have to judge for yourself whether the end result is effective.

But judging for oneself is not allowed. Or, rather, if one judges and judges wrongly, well, you will be judged, too. Commentators at the Huffington Post were intuiting of one critic, who dared describe Colbert as "shrill and airless","If you don't like what Colbert had to say then you are a radical right winger... You're a killer in a SUV with blinders on with your foot plastered to the floor... You believe in torture, war, and murder of innocent lives." The critic in question happens to be my Nader-supporting, antiwar, vegetarian husband. But perhaps I'll think twice about kids now.

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. By this logic, Cindy Sheehan should be hosting the Academy Awards.

In the past day or so, perhaps realizing they had lost the battle to argue Colbert's stand-up into something that will be universally acknowledged as funny, the liberal commentariat has shifted tactics. Salonís Joan Walsh, for instance, pretended to grant that humor was subjective: "Let's even give Colbert's critics that point. Clearly he didn't entertain most of the folks at the dinner Saturday night." But whose fault is that? Why, those who were not entertained, of course. The tepid response "tells us more about the audience than it does about Colbert." Not laughing, it turns out, was part of the press corpsí master plan, because "Colbert refused to play his dutiful, toothless part. He had to be marginalized. Voilŗ: ĎHe wasn't funny.í" Never has "marginalized" sounded so sinister. Heís lucky we didnít kill him.

Others took a bolder approach: Colbert may not have been funny, but that doesnít matter. He spoke "truthiness" to power, "you so don't get it when you spin the idea that Colbert's performance had anything to do with laughs," HuffPo commentators proclaim: "This time, Colbert didn't have to be funny. Because he was right." Added one, "What he did was not comedy. It was a public service." This, I believe, will come as news to both the people who paid him to perform and to Stephen Colbert.

Comedy can have a political point but it is not political action, and what Colbert said on the stage of the Washington Hilton — funny or not — means far less than what the ardent posters at ThankYouStephenColbert.org would like it to. While it may have shocked the President to hear someone talk so openly about his misdeeds in the setting of the correspondents dinner — joking about "the most powerful photo-ops in the world" and NSA wiretaps — I somehow doubt that Bush has never heard these criticisms before. To laud Colbert for saying them seems to me, a card-carrying lefty, to be settling. Colbert's defenders might aim for the same stinging criticisms to be issued not from the Hilton ballroom but from the dais in a Senate Judiciary committee hearing. And I wouldn't really care if they were funny or not.