Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 25, 2010

Colbert’s Comedy Carries Congress

Keep Hope--I Mean Fear--Alive!

Stephen Colbert had the ultimate improv gig yesterday, as he appeared before Congress in character, using his singularly brilliant eye for irony to make a case for fair treatment of immigrant workers by presenting a living parody of the exact opposite position.

I’ve written a fair amount in the past about Colbert and his self-invented podium/stage, as he takes long-form, Chicago-style improvisational comedy (aka the Second City style, where Colbert trained and performed awhile back) where it has never gone before: to speak truth to power. But this goes even beyond Stephen smirkingly hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, as he did famously in –what? –2006? (Gosh, that seems like ten years ago — and yet I’m still not healed from the Bush years… nor is my wallet.)

Meanwhile CNN.com –in a classic case of burying the lead– wrote up Colbert’s testimony story in a slightly fluffy, breezy, non-analytical way. I feel this way because as I see it, this is not so much a story about migrant farm workers or Congressional backbiting as it is a big story about political dialogue itself.

Here, I think, is the real story:

We have just taken a huge step in adjusting who were are willing to listen to and classify an “expert” in the U.S. political dialogue. No longer is it just Schwarzenegger being on Reagan’s physical fitness advisory committee, and using that as a small opening to become a political player.

No, this is an acknowledgement that journalism itself –even fake journalism on cable tv in the guise of entertainment– has the potential to affect policy, not just respond to it. Not just earnest, self-serious muckraking journalism, either. Not even good on-the-scene, “did-my-homework” journalism that clears away the rhetoric and baby-kissing to give politicians access to rank-and-file citizen attitudes and experience.

No, here we have smart, satirical journalism –gonzo journalism, to borrow Hunter S. Thompson’s word- pointing at larger truths about who we are and what we value — and doing it IN CONGRESS.  Here we have a “clown” with a theater degree from Northwestern –who never read a legal brief in his life, never ran a social service agency, and never sank a bank or energy corporation — being acknowledged as having eyes in his head, a good heart, and something relevant to say about how to run the country. A Regular Joe –be he a Plumber, a Jose, or a smart-alecky Catholic comedian from South Carolina– finally has something to contribute after all.

Speaking of which, do you remember Joe the non-plumbing Plumber, the “plant” from McCain’s campaign? Because that’s what he was, kiddies. A plant. It’s an old vaudeville or theater trick: someone inauthentic is put in the audience, secretly pre-selected for a photo opportunity, or as the subject for a magic trick, when in reality they’re in on the trick. When stacked next to Colbert, I’d say Joe was more of a “packaged” fake expert/semi-celebrity than Colbert could ever be.

Meanwhile, the Jose’s and Marias that Colbert “interviewed” and “worked with” in the fields are genuinely real people. It’s only in the fancy editing, and the smug or silly behavior of Colbert himself, that the fakery comes in.

So the important difference is this: everyone, including Colbert, KNOWS he’s a fake journalist, that it’s a joke. Nobody’s trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Futhermore, the fact that he’s a fake journalist does not change the basic, obvious truth behind what he’s playing with. It does not change the speed of an assembly line, for example, prompting Colbert to say “Man, this is HARD!”

This ability to sneak past our defenses and portray the truth through comedy can be noticed in how CNN chose to close their online story. Note in particular the adjective that Rep. John Conyers, skeptical of Colbert, uses below to describe his actual testimony:

The chairwoman of the subcommittee, Rep. Zoe Lofrgen, D-California, told CNN’s Dana Bash before the hearing that she didn’t think Colbert’s appearance was a stunt.

“Celebrities add pizzazz to an issue,” she said. “I hope his celebrity will bring attention” to this one.

But another Democrat, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, initially seemed unimpressed with Colbert, asking him to leave the committee room and merely submit his written statement instead. Colbert noted that he was testifying at Lofgren’s invitation, and said that he would remove himself at her request.

Conyers later told CNN he feared Colbert would create a “circus” atmosphere. But Colbert, who engaged in a question-and-answer session with the subcommittee, actually turned out to be “profound,” he said.

See what I mean? Profound.  I don’t believe Conyers was exaggerating in a complimentary way to ingratiate himself, either. He’s just acknowledging Colbert’s perspective in the Q&A as accurate, and powerfully  moving.

Deep laughter –perhaps suddenly noticing the absurd thing that you somehow missed for years– can be an extremely powerful experience in the life of any person, be they politician, pear-picker, or president of the Dole produce empire. In the religious or counseling realm, they sometimes call this type of experience  an epiphany. In comedy, it’s called “getting the joke”. Either way, it’s a crack in the hard reality, an opening to let light and joy into the messy, ugly process of maturing (as a person, or as a nation).

When comedy is called profound, in my opinion, then I can finally say about the political landscape( in a hopeful, relieved tone): “NOW we’re getting somewhere!”


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