Today’s ribald revolutionaries aren’t “throwing Molotov cocktails in some banana republic,” says the new book ¡Satiristas!, “they’re slinging jokes ‘cause they’re going bananas over the state of the republic.” If George Orwell was correct when he said, “Whatever is funny is subversive,” these fearless freedom fighters should be at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Shock Them and They Will Laugh
When Colbert appeared at the 2006 White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner eviscerating President Bush to his face, he was hailed as a conquering hero. It was a moment that gave everyone in comedy pause, and made them question their own timidity. But while the comedy community — and many Americans — view Colbert as important and uncompromisingly ballsy, the man himself has a more measured view of what he does and the impact it has.
COLBERT: I don’t consider what I did at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner brave. Anti-authoritarian maybe, but I think there’s a difference between that and bravery, because I enjoyed myself. I was not afraid of the people in the room. I think “bravery” is action in the face of what you consider reasonable fear. But I wasn’t afraid; I was so excited. It’s like, if there was this chasm to go over and my jokes were my bridge, I had confidence in the construction. I was so happy to go and do it.
I couldn’t help but wonder if they had any idea they were letting a fox into the Republican hen house. If so, someone there has a real subversive streak.
COLBERT: I have to say that, afterward, I wrote to the Correspondents’ Association people who had asked me to do it and said, “I had a wonderful time, I certainly hope I didn’t make any trouble for you.” Because I didn’t want to; they were very nice to me, and I’m not an assassin. I really like doing my work and my jokes, but I really didn’t want to fuck this guy who booked me. But he said, “We loved it! Thank you. We’re thrilled.”
You faced some apparent disdain from Bush and others on the dais, and as I watched it I couldn’t help thinking, His tax returns for the past ten years had better be impeccable. Do you think it was perceived as more than comedy? That it was a real confrontation with the powers that be?
COLBERT: Oh, I don’t know if it was seen like that. I know that afterward there was a lot of talk in the press and the blogosphere about it, and much was made of whether there was any significance to the evening, but I purposely haven’t read that stuff, and in the room, nobody talked to me, so I have no idea.
Spoiler alert: A lot of people did see it that way. So you’re in what seems to me a very odd position: You’re an actor, a comedian, and a comedy writer, but you and your show are quoted in op-ed pages, studies say you’re considered by many to be an actual news source — or at least an alternative to distrusted news sources — and you, your jokes, and this comic character are part of the national discourse. ls that disconcerting?
COLBERT: I don’t know whether I accept that, Mr. Provenza. What I mean is, I don’t accept that responsibility, because I don’t accept any responsibility for anything I do, but I also don’t know if I accept that premise. I don’t necessarily think that my work is all that informative or all that influential. I think that it is influential in this regard: that I can make people feel better at times about something that otherwise might make them feel sick. But I don’t know if that’s the same thing as changing their minds. Surely someone’s given you the Peter Cook quote about satirists. When asked, “Does satire have a political effect?” he said something to the effect of, “Absolutely. All that great satire of the Weimar cabaret, look how they stopped Hitler.”
I think when we do the show well, or when I do my job well, on some level it reflects honest, passionately held beliefs. Now, could those influence people? They could. But I’m not doing it to do so, and I’m not expecting it to. I don’t feel it’s a failure if it doesn’t. If somebody tells me that I influenced them, it’s not for me to say they’re wrong, but that’s not my goal and it’s not the definition of my success. I’m out for laughs. When people came up to me after the Correspondents’ Dinner and said, “Fuck those people, man. What does it matter if they laugh?” I was like, “No, it kind of matters to me.”
So as satirists, by picking up and commenting on what’s already churning in the media, are we not then allowing ourselves to be “hijacked” the way the news cycle is? Should we be the ones to dig deeper to find some other take than what’s already gained traction? Or finding out what is not already in the discourse-but maybe should be-and presenting that instead?
COLBERT: I agree, and I think I do it. The danger, for example, is that I’ve got to do a show tonight, and today, the scripts aren’t ready. Generally, we have scripts in pretty good shape 24 hours ahead of time, but we’re doing a soup-to-nuts rewrite today. Sometimes you get pressed by that clock into a point of view that you don’t necessarily believe is the best, but that you know that will be comedically successful. That is a danger, but we try to continually name that danger. If we don’t do it half the time, I feel great.