Did you hear the one about the satirist and the president? Probably not
CBC News Viewpoint | May 5, 2006 | More from Heather Mallick
Heather Mallick has worked as a reporter, copy editor and book review editor at various Toronto newspapers and most recently wrote a column called As If for the Globe and Mail. She has won National Newspaper Awards for both Critical Writing and Feature Writing. Heather writes a political column for the New York Times Syndication Service that runs internationally. Her first book, Pearls in Vinegar, based on an ancient Japanese form of diary, was published by Penguin in 2004. She is currently writing a collection of essays for Knopf Canada, tentatively titled "Cake or Death: The Excruciating Choices of Everyday Life".
History was made last week at the White House Press Correspondents' Dinner. But it took a non-journalist – a comedian in fact – to do the job the well-fed journalists failed to do: take on George W. Bush.
The thing is, you likely won't have heard about it. The mainstream media ignored the keynote speech by Stephen Colbert, which made Bush look like a smashed toadstool and the American press look like the compost a mushroom grows in.
Hot spit, it was great. I was weeping with laughter while the portly millionaires of the American media sat there going whiter with shock (even as their younger female companions smirked) and the president looked as if he were about to have Colbert whacked.
Colbert loves Bush. Really. He told him so: "The greatest thing about this man is that he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will."
The finest moment was when Colbert told the media how it works: "The president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type.
"Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know, fiction!"
The former senior news analyst on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, America's No. 1 fake news channel, has his own show now, The Colbert Report, an elaborate parody of Bill O'Reilly's No-Spin Zone.
He calls his show a "no-fact zone" and he plays a blowhard anchor, what he calls a "high status idiot," an unread, grotesque bully who lives on "truthiness," a Colbert word for faith in what you believe to be true rather than what is true. He promises not to tell you the truth "but to feel the truth at you." It runs here on the Comedy Network; the two shows have more viewers in Canada than they do in the States, but Stewart and Colbert are U.S. cult hits.
The Colbert Report is the last word in anchor ego. Even the set is designed so that all lines converge on Colbert, and he is lit very much the way, say, Jesus would have been lit. Colbert sells his own sperm, Formula 401, to viewers, although he has now announced that this will be a seasonal product.
So someone – out of old-fashioned American cleverness worthy of H.L. Mencken or maybe not realizing that Colbert's humour is based on taking a fine sander to all that suckers hold true – said: Why don't we get Stephen Colbert this year?
They stuff 3,000 people into the ballroom at the Washington hotel where Ronald Reagan got shot. The press, armed with opera glasses and pink with proximity, compete over which famous person they can invite – this year it was George Clooney and former ambassador Joe Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame, the reluctantly famous CIA agent – and pretend the president is their pal.
Colbert's monologue wasn't sarcastic or even ironic. It went far beyond that. Because he uses his own name to play a total bastard with an amazing resemblance to Fox's O'Reilly: He was doing a parody of a satire of the things Americans are told to repeat straight.
His words were seditious, yet he delivered them with a stern face. You get it or you don't.
Bloggers have done a parallel transcript of Bush's thoughts during the monologue: "I love this guy. This guy loves me. I gotta hire him."
So that's a satire of a parody of a satire. If I can raise the tone here, Michael Scherer on Salon.com wrote that Colbert "reversed and flattened the meaning of the words he spoke."
And if I can go literary on you, Colbert had the wit and raw courage to do to Bush what Mark Antony did to Brutus, murderer of Caesar. As the American media has self-destructed, it takes Colbert to damn Bush with devastatingly ironic praise.
That day, viewers set up www.thankyoustephencolbert.org, which had 40,000 letters by last Thursday.
Some e-mailers worried that Colbert would be fired by Comedy Central, which is indirectly owned by CBS. Me, I offered to sponsor him and give him my house should Bush deport him. Let's not be smug. Canada needs a Colbert too.
This week in books
After delaying 18 months because I was afraid it would be too painful, I read Alexander Masters' Stuart: A Life Backwards, the story of a violent, drug addled homeless man who was once a sweet child. It's wise, sick-making and extremely funny. Then came the collected Claudine novels by Colette, a pure pleasure, and Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, less so. The soundtrack was Springsteen's We Shall Overcome, and Canada's great Blue Rodeo almost nonstop.
This weekend(June 10th) CBC radio replayed a program of GO! in which you talked
about the phenomenon of comics and satirists such as Jon Stewart or
Lewis Black sucking up to the very people they most despise. You joked
that it was all about the mortgage.
I wondered if you were the same Heather Mallick I knew and liked
through print. How curious that your wry comments on GO! led me to this
article about Stephen Colbert doing the exact opposite - confronting
Bush rather than stroking his ego.
You're right - I like most everyone else had missed this story. And you
are right also, to suggest that Canada needs its own Stephen Colbert.
And yet the Canadian situation is very different.
Stephen Colbert was able to speak for the silent majority. He tapped
into what everyone knows to be true, but dare not say, in a country
where it is verboten to be unpatriotic in a time of war.
In Canada we are too dumb to understand why we should be concerned
about electing a leader who supported an invasion that the vast
majority of Canadians strongly opposed. Yet Harper's approval rating
could hardly be higher.
In the USA, there is silent rage, bubbling deep
beneath the surface. In Canada, only dull oblivion, cloaked in a smug
sense of superiority.
Michael Hey | Vancouver
I wanted to write you an e-mail to let you know how much I enjoyed your article on Stephen Colbert. I've been living away from Canada for over a year now and am teaching English in Japan. I was a fan of your writing when I used to read the Globe and Mail and was glad to see you on Viewpoint as I often use it as reading material for my students.
Anyway, I was laughing like a crazy woman at a coffee shop in the middle of Tokyo with a student as we read your article. It was smart, interesting, and most importantly...funny!