by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - March 26, 2007) Comedians, generally speaking, fall into two distinct categories.
There are those who, in their own persona, spin humor, whimsy, and gags, some of which succeed and others which fall flat, but all of which stem from comedic observations. Then there are those comics who adopt and inhabit a fictitious comic persona from which their comedy is inextricable. In the first category one would place comics such as George Burns, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, et al. In the second category, we find comedians who conceal themselves behind fictitious characters such as Charles Chaplin (the hapless little tramp), Ed Wynn ("The Perfect Fool"), Jack Benny (the incorrigible tightwad), Andrew Dice Clay (the macho vulgarian), and Sacha Baron Cohen viz. Borat (the confused immigrant from Kazakhstan), etc. In this category, comedy is inseparable from character and because the character has become a known quantity, the material must always reiterate pre-established characteristics. Stephen Colbert, the Absolute Monarch of The Colbert Report on MSNBC, falls solidly into this second category.
Egomaniacal to the point of absurdity, his audience seems to consist of trained seals that whoop and holler for their idol with synchronous abandon. When guests are announced for interview, the plaudits customarily bestowed on them are openly appropriated by the imperious master of ceremonies who sops up each and every ovation. It goes without saying that if there is to be a triumph it can be awarded only to Colbert. Even honored guests such as senatorial candidates and charismatic celebrities accept the fact that they must huddle in the shadows if they accept an invitation to be interviewed. There is something Nuremberg Rally-like about the kudos that are regularly showered upon the applause-hogging Leader; but curiously, it creates no resentment, either among the guests or the viewing public. Colbert's domination of the proceedings is total, unchallenged, and invincible.
His stock-in-trade is obliquity -- but in Colbert's case, that which is oblique is also clearly apparent. His façade is that of a gung ho, flag-waving, all-American conservative, which masks the almost surreal radical that festers underneath. It is through Colbert's proclaimed enthusiasms that one decodes the subversive messages and liberal sympathies that make up his true feelings, which means his audience is constantly obliged to translate bloviations and innuendo to ascertain their reporter's true intent. This is a new wrinkle in American comedy and there is no one, not even his mentor and only begetter Jon Stewart (on whose Daily Show Colbert started his television career), who demonstrates that degree of comic sophistication.
Take Colbert's nightly feature "The Word," in which his right-wing rant on every subject in the Conservative Decalogue is rudely contradicted by phrases that pop up in the split screen beside him. This is text dancing with subtext, and although that is a traditional theatrical technique, it is not one we have seen used in quite this way on television and it is in keeping with the Colbert formula viz. what you see is not what you get.
The highlight of most of Colbert's Reports is his interviews with guests drawn mainly from the political sphere and the book world. These are straight po-faced conversations with willing dupes that, because they are so implacably tongue-in-cheek, often enter realms of Lewis Carroll-like surrealism. In one recent encounter, and virtually out of nowhere, Colbert wondered out loud if his frumpy guest would consider donating his mustache to be raffled off for a worthy cause, similar to those charities in which women donate their shorn hair. It may not seem like a hilarious non sequitur described in such a matter of fact manner but in context, it produces the kind of laughter that excites irrepressible urination.
Colbert's gravity elicits some outrageous displays of smugness and pomposity, especially from politicos and stuffy bureaucrats. The only character who seems to have ever gotten the best of him was Larry King, whose confidence in interview formats is so deeply entrenched it made even Colbert stumble. Ted Koppel, on the other hand, came on with a forced levity that seemed appropriate to the bogus framework that he had agreed to enter, but rapidly fell into the dour and humorless gravity that is the curse of the inveterate newscaster. Talking about serious issues like Iraq and fatal foreign policy decisions, the interview slithered out of Colbert's comic grasp and rapidly disintegrated.
Inspired comedians like Lenny Bruce, Jackie Mason, and George Carlin open up comic vistas because of their subject matter and the brazen way in which it is delivered, but there are other kinds of comics (Jonathan Winters and Sam Kinison come to mind) where comedy soars beyond conventional longitudes and something extra-dimensional is suddenly added to the genre. One feels something like that happening on a fairly regular basis with Colbert.
There are those who were rankled by his remarks before President Bush and the guests at the 2006 White House Correspondents Association Dinner. The president's discomfiture was unmistakable. Having tossed a shovel full of sludge into his face, Colbert passed by the Chief Executive for a farewell handshake. The proffered hand was tapped by the president's as if it were a bloody limb offered by a departing Count Dracula. On that occasion, Colbert was somewhat too embarrassing to be truly comedic and should have realized that, whereas he had no qualms about lacerating the hand that feeds him, the assembled guests could not possibly share his effrontery. But everything contained in his routine was in keeping with his comic persona, and it is that unshakable allegiance to the assumed Colbert persona which makes him stand out from the bevy of funny men and women on Comedy Central who merely recycle old shtick or, like Sarah Silverman, confuse no-holds-barred obscenity with pioneering forays into avant-garde humor.
Like all overexposed comedians Colbert has his good nights and his bad nights, but what remains significant and original about him is that he brings a maturity and sophistication to comedy that seems to stem from his trying to remain sane in a politically mad world. Colbert personifies the Neanderthal, my-country-right-or-wrong conservative whose bungling dogmatism has alienated over half the nation and sacrificed the lives of over 3000 misled Americans. If, over the past five years, the present administration had not seriously bruised the delicate sense of our American identity, a Stephen Colbert would never have evolved. Colbert forces us to laugh at scandals, bigotries, and tautologies, which in the cold light of day are appalling, inhuman, and intolerable. That they can be exposed to ridicule is almost as good as having the body politic take them on in earnest. Hopefully, one day the laughter generated by this comedian will morph the nation into political action, but till that day comes, there is a certain degree of satisfaction to be derived from simply throwing spitballs at the Emperor's new clothes.
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