Stephen Colbert, Bread, and (Congressional) Circuses

by A. Jay Adler on September 29, 2010
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“Not everybody feels that irony and satire has a role in American dialogue. People are entitled to their opinion,” Lofgren told me. But the point isn’t the role of satire in American dialogue — it’s the appropriateness of farce at congressional hearings.

via Ruth Marcus – Stephen Colbert becomes another circus of Congress’s making.

Of course, if congressional hearings are already themselves a farce one is confronted with a conceptual knot. What Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post misses about Stephen Colbert‘s appearance at a congressional hearing is that the most appropriate venue for satire is precisely where it is not appropriate. Satire in the “appropriate” place is safe satire, domesticated satire, comfort food for those who are not its target. Among the many fine brief definitions of satire one can easily find on the web, I like this one:

the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.

You will also find added:

often with the intent of correcting, or changing, the subject of the satiric attack.

Wikipedia further offers that

“militant” irony or sarcasm often professes to approve (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack.

Any of this sound like anyone we know?

One of the pointed pleasures of watching the video of Colbert’s “testimony” is to observe the über-seriousness of those behind him. One young woman very near behind wears mostly a proto-smile,wishing to enjoy Colbert, but reigned in, clearly, by the determination of everyone around her not to be humored in that setting. (CNN’s unmoved Dana Bash is far back to the right looking like only a policy wonk’s idea of a fun date.)

It’s instructive that Marcus herself can’t resist relating her own high points of Colbert’s performance (which is what it was), whom she professes to enjoy. It was, you must understand, the setting: a funeral. I’m sorry – a congressional hearing.

(On that score, you missed the facetious eye rolling mutterances my father and I exchanged as we listened to a Rabbi who had never met her extol the virtues of my father’s mother, the nasty woman who abandoned him at birth – at her funeral.) But I digress.

Marcus even quotes from Colbert parts of his testimony that don’t appear on most video snippets.

“Maybe this ag jobs bill would help,” he suggested at one point. “I don’t know. Like most members of Congress, I haven’t read it.” Concluding his remarks, Colbert said, “I trust that, following my testimony, both sides will work together on this issue in the best interests of the American people, as you always do.”

The very sober congresspeople – Steny Hoyer said that Colbert embarrassed himself – couldn’t hear that message; they had their heads too far up their asses noses buried deep in their briefing books. Frequent repetitions of Colbert’s performance would be wastes of time that lacked its force. That copycat of Swift who suggested eating commoners to solve the problem of discontent among the masses failed to deliver the same sting. Good satire is unique, original – a swift (to coin a term), striking communique delivered just where it isn’t wanted.

But as the clearly conflicted Marcus cannot resist relaying once again,

As usual, [Jon] Stewart said it best, during his show Monday night. “Of course Colbert is more embarrassed than the House of Representatives,” he said. “Colbert still has dignity and integrity left to lose.”

How smart of the subcommittee to offer a reminder.

Ruth, really, you got the point. It’s okay to get the point. It’s okay to laugh. Really. It’s okay.

AJA

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1 comment

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Maureen September 29, 2010 at 11:22 am

Your usual very good post, Jay.

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