Make Me Laugh
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!