Thursday, April 10, 2014

"A Sweet Fool"

"Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?"--the Fool, in Shakespeare's "King Lear"

Stephen Colbert is leaving "The Colbert Report" to take over David Letterman's slot on "The Late Show" on CBS.

I don't normally post about TV, but then again, this isn't a post about TV. It's about the value of satire in a democracy.

As an avid fan of "The Daily Show," going all the way back to the not-at-all lamented Craig Kilborn days, I can remember when Colbert was "the new guy." (Most people have forgotten that Colbert actually preceded Jon Stewart on TDS by two years.) I had always liked him, but never as much as when he developed the Bill O'Reilly-esque persona for which he is now famous.
By David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons

I've been a devoted fan of the show. I may not have seen every episode, but I've probably come close (and may in fact have seen 100% since I got a DVR). What I've enjoyed the most is the relish Colbert takes in his satire. His talents (and those of his writers) have created what I consider to be the best satirical character in modern American history.

That's why this career move gives me pause.

Joan Walsh published a nice piece just the day before the announcement about Colbert's value to the progressive movement. That's true, but I'd go further. He is valuable to our democracy.

Humor, particularly sharply satirical humor, is incompatible with the totalitarian mind. It punctures holes in the immense pretensions of totalitarians. One of the lesser-acknowledged attributes shared by totalitarians of the right and left alike is their humorlessness. They are so deadly serious about not only their ideas but themselves that they cannot abide any mockery. As O'Brien says to Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984, under Big Brother "[t]here will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy."

By contrast, I think you can judge the health of a democracy by the extent of its self-mocking humor. The liberalism born in the 18th century had as a cornerstone its openness to critique--an acknowledgement that, however well-thought out one may believe a position to be, it is always subject to argument and new evidence--and mockery, which in the form of satire is, itself, a kind of argument that exposes unfounded assumptions and unacknowledged hypocrisy.

Colbert's satire has always been at the expense of the powerful, not of the "defeated enemy." Americans, at their best, have always seen their leaders as fit subjects for mockery. It is one of the ways we remind them that they are, after all, just like us: no better or worse, just temporarily entrusted with power. We have often loved best those leaders who show they have a sense of humor, especially of the self-deprecating kind (Lincoln most of all, FDR to a lesser extent), while judging harshly those who appear humorless (see Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon in particular).

But at the same time, Americans have also been--at least to my mind--insufficiently appreciative of good satire. Ever since the ridiculous controversy over Randy Newman's "Short People" in 1978, it's been clear to me if the general public could not see that Newman's song was meant to satirize prejudice, America must suffer from a severe irony-deficiency. That's why I've been so heartened by the success of Colbert's right-wing pundit character. People got it. That had to be a good thing.

Now that this success has catapulted the real Colbert to late night network stardom, however, that satirical character will be no more. He's a smart, talented man. I'm sure he can and will do other things well, and succeed in his new job. But his gain is our loss.

Colbert's combination of sharp intellect, courage, and human decency has made him ideal for political satire. (His 2006 speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner remains, to use his language, the ballsiest act of political comedy I've ever seen.) There is a deep compassion for the weak, the downtrodden, and the suffering that informs Colbert's satire. No doubt that quality will continue to inform his future work. But in the satire of "The Colbert Report," it combined with the swift sword of his intellect in a particularly effective way. It is hard to imagine it will be the same when he emerges from that character and has to entertain the broad, irony-deficient expanse of all of America.

He may prove me wrong.  I certainly hope so. And if not, America is still the better for nine years of Stephen Colbert's brilliant satire on "The Colbert Report."

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