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Make Me Laugh

2012 July 18

Maybe the topic of comedy doesn’t technically fit within the categories of “looks” or “books” but it’s on my mind, so I’m gonna talk about it. Empowerment!

Last night, I had the opportunity to take advantage of living in this blessed city (I love when the high rent almost pays off!) and attended a live taping of The Colbert Report. I’ve been a big fan of the show since it started and I was thrilled when Joe got tickets. The tickets are free, but you do need to wait in line for a good 3 hours prior to the taping–not exactly a picnic in 99-degree heat, but it was all worth it once we were inside the studio, watching Stephen do what he does best. Before the show started, he came out and did a Q&A with the audience, out of character. He was just as funny as himself as he is in character. The show is really high-energy, thanks in no small part to Stephen himself, who is constantly mugging and improv-ing for the audience even when the cameras aren’t rolling. One of my favorite parts of the whole experience was just before the show, when he was lip-syncing along with The White Stripes as he was getting primped for primetime. Also when he was joking with NAS. Good times.

Recently, Steve Almond wrote an article for The Baffler in which he proclaims that Colbert and his counterpart Jon Stewart are not real political comedians. In his indictment, he also lampoons the audience, saying, ” Our lazy embrace of Stewart and Colbert is a testament to our own impoverished comic standards. We have come to accept coy mockery as genuine subversion and snarky mimesis as originality.” He goes on to rant, “What Stewart and Colbert do most nights is convert civic villainy into disposable laughs… Wit, exaggeration, and gentle mockery trump ridicule and invective. The goal is to mollify people, not incite them.”

True, he does concede that both Colbert and Stewart are gifted comedians with brilliant writing staffs, and that they do, on occasion, stand up against the evils of modern society. However, he believes these occasions are far too rare. He rails that the two are “not just invested in the status quo, but dependent on it.” I fundamentally disagree with most, if not all, of Almond’s arguments, but perhaps this one most of all. Both Colbert and Stewart are hugely talented, intelligent, and most of all, funny entertainers. If the world were some kind of utopia, which it never will be, these performers would still be making people laugh. I truly believe that. Furthermore, what comedian doesn’t owe their career to all the things in the world that are shitty?

Again, the viewers are criticized when Almond accuses, “Why take to the streets when Stewart and Colbert are on the case? It’s a lot easier, and more fun, to experience the war as a passive form of entertainment than as a source of moral distress requiring citizen activism.” So now it’s television’s fault that the young people aren’t protesting anymore? I think there’s a lot more to these issues than placing the blame on two popular television hosts. Look, I love Stewart and Colbert as comedians, as entertainers, even as intelligent commentators on social policies and politics. The thing is, they don’t claim to be anything more than that–just because many of their supporters may choose to get their news solely from their shows, or cite them as the only purveyors of truth–well, that’s a matter of opinion. And Almond is certainly entitled to his own opinion, but it’s dangerous to point the finger at television and comedy, especially in the incarnation of two particular celebrities, trying to redefine what comedy is and should be to people.

In Almond’s eyes, the paragon of what comedy should be is embodied in the late comedian Bill Hicks, who defiantly mocked just about everyone he could equally. Now, while I don’t necessarily have a problem with that type of comedy, I would argue that it’s not the only type of comedy. Sure, being subversive is an important part of being a comic, but can’t it also hinge on the ability to legitimately entertain and please people rather than offend them? One of Almond’s principal arguments is that Hicks criticized the military, while Colbert visited Iraq to perform for the troops. Almond seems to dismiss the many socio-economic factors that lead to soldiers becoming soldiers–they are not all craven killers or “masked assassins”–in fact, I would venture to say that the vast majority aren’t. I don’t support war, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t support the troops of people fighting on behalf of the country. I think it’s incredibly short-sighted to lambast the soldiers themselves when the real problems are so much more complicated than that.

 

I realize this post has devolved into a full-on rant–it’s not what I intended when I sat down to write it, but these things sometimes happen. I’m wondering–what is the goal of comedy for you? What do you think of Almond’s accusations against Stewart and Colbert? I want to hear your thoughts!

7 Responses Post a comment
  1. meghan permalink
    July 18, 2012

    Oh, my. I love this post. Really, I don’t get how Almond can say Stewart and Colbert aren’t encouraging protest– especially Colbert, when he actually does things like run for the presidential primary in SC and start his own Super PAC (the latter of which Stewart was also in on). Sure, it is a different form of subversion than encouraging everyone to go down to Zuccotti Park, but I think it’s subversive nonetheless. Now, the question is whether they do what they do purely to critique the socio-political system or also for entertainment purposes. And Jon Stewart has been painfully clear on this, that their role is entertainment. (Though, in actuality, I think he is too insistent on this point precisely because the supposed sources of “news” operate more as info-tainment than actual reliable news sources.) Regardless, it is clear they are successful to the degree they are because they are also funny. And being funny, witty, and insightful about current events on a nightly basis is something that requires talent and a lot of hard work. Maybe the argument is that they should chuck their TV shows because they are too beholden to Comedy Central… but you know what? I would argue that the most subversive show on television is South Park, and Comedy Central seems to give them almost completely free rein on what to cover. Maybe the argument is that television is too passive of a platform in which to engage people… but how is that different than performing from a stage, as Bill Hicks did? I guess there could be a larger point about how Colbert and Stewart are reliant upon capitalism and consumerism to some degree for their successes, but, again, I don’t see how that differs from any other comedian out there. In short, I don’t think Almond’s argument holds too much water. And if it weren’t for Colbert and Stewart, a generation would be even more uninformed and apathetic than they are now– and certainly less entertained. Maybe that’s not much, but it’s something. Anyway, great post, Jill!

  2. meghan permalink
    July 18, 2012

    p.s. I just read the whole Almond article. I agree that the Rally to Restore Fear/Sanity was a bit disappointing from my own perspective in that it was a missed opportunity to really take a stand and call out the political system in front of a live audience… however, I stand by my assertion that Colbert and Stewart both do this in their own way- and the fact that the article doesn’t touch on the Super PAC in particular neglects a huge part of how Colbert’s subversion works. Interesting omission by the author.

  3. July 18, 2012

    I absolutely hate Steve Almond. He taught at my college for awhile and although I never had him, on our school professor rating system he had horrible reviews, and he ended up quitting via an op-ed in the Boston Globe (you can read it here: http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0512-20.htm) over Condoleezza Rice being my class’s graduation speaker. (I have my own thoughts on that that I blogged about awhile ago- http://strugglingsingletwentysomething.blogspot.com/2009/05/along-with-death-and-taxes.html.)

    So, basically, I don’t take anything he writes seriously. He’s a douche. You’re right; he’s wrong. And although I don’t watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report very often, I think both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are awesome.

  4. July 19, 2012

    yeah… I think all this emphasis on the social responsibility of comedy/entertainment is a little strange. is this a new thing, I am wondering? it’s like culturally/generationally we had this a wave of apathy, and then we’re reacting to that with a significant amount of attempted increased sincerity (in my opinion), but, like, come on guys let’s not try to run a marathon after sitting on our asses eating potato chips for however long. let’s be proud we’re running a mile, at least!

  5. Raquel permalink
    July 20, 2012

    Your post is fantastic and spot on. Also, Steve Almond is a douche bag.

  6. July 25, 2012

    I also disagree with Almond. These comedians are not the reason why people aren’t taking it to the streets. Two people can’t be blamed for the overall apathy that exists. I personally like it when comedians make social political commentaries. Especially since there are so many people that don’t want to know what’s going on in the news or don’t seek to understand or know what’s going on. Sort of a tangent… At the Oscar’s Chris Rock presented the award for best animated film. In his intro he talked about the beauty of animation and how a large woman could play a thin princess and how a white woman could be an Arabian prince. He then made a statement about the state of racial affairs in this country. He said if you’re a black man you could play a donkey or a zebra. He also commented on how animated film is “hard work”. He’s aware of what hard work truly is like stripping wood or working for UPS. See the video clip here

    • July 25, 2012

      Yes, I remember that speech! It’s especially impressive to make those commentaries at normally censored and bland awards shows where usually everyone is just so self-congratulatory. Comedy as social commentary is definitely valid, even if it’s not inciting any revolutions.

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