Monday, May 01, 2006

The Gettysburg Address of Stand Up?

Not quite. In fact, I expect that Steven Colbert feels a certain amount of regret about his delivery, which wasn’t very smooth. On the other hand, the predictable absence of audience response must have made it difficult to maintain the timing, guaranteeing that the level of the performance wouldn’t match the excellence of the script or the significance of the occasion considered as a political act.

As Garry Wills points out in his wonderful book on the Gettysburg Address, the idea that Lincoln’s speech fell on deaf ears is a myth. The official journalistic reaction to Colbert, on the other hand, really is silence. Nothing surprising about that: under certain circumstances, the Press Corps may be willing to turn on Bush, but they certainly aren’t going to give any airtime to a deadly attack on themselves. They certainly can’t answer the charge implied by his jokes. They aren’t living up to their own narrative about themselves and they know it. Supposedly a band of heroes that speaks truth to power, they act like a bunch of well-paid whores.

Colbert violated a sacred rule of corporate funfests. When the employees make the ritual jokes about managers, they can, indeed they must, say outrageous things; but the daring cracks have to be completely irrelevant. You can rib the boss for his golf game or even his waistline, intimate that he can’t pronounce nuclear and suggest that he isn’t very bright. Remarks that actually hit the target, no matter how witty, are forbidden. The point of the reversals of roles during Saturnalia is to make it easier for the slaves to go on being slaves, not to suggest that there is anything problematic about servitude.

(transcript of Colbert's performance)

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