Cohen misses the point

You know I’m no fan of Richard Cohen. He’s not the person I’d go to for some sharp insight or even for the ability to recognize humor, so it should be no surprise that he failed to see the humor in Stephen Colbert’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Comedy is a matter of taste, so that Cohen didn’t find it funny is no big deal…but this comment shows off Cohen’s typical obliviousness and tin ear.

In Washington he was playing to a different crowd, and he failed dismally in the funny person’s most solemn obligation: to use absurdity or contrast or hyperbole to elucidate — to make people see things a little bit differently. He had a chance to tell the president and much of important (and self-important) Washington things it would have been good for them to hear.

Huh? What would have been good for them to hear? I heard pointed comments about the war, the economy, Bush’s unpopularity, privacy and civil rights, and most importantly, the spinelessness of the Washington media. In fact, that’s exactly what Colbert did: he used absurdity and contrast and hyperbole (which Cohen did not find funny, but so what?) to point out a great many hard truths. Even if he wasn’t funny to some people, he used his opportunity to tell these guys some important things. He met his “most solemn obligation.”

Oddly enough, Cohen did not say what he thinks would have been good for the audience to hear. Which fork to use for the salad? A joke about airline food? A riff on the uselessness of algebra?


  1. bsa says

    It is amazing the hoops administration apologists go through in response to Stephen’s Smackdown. Half the audience “got it” and were bemused/shamed while the other half (these are approximate numbers) were expecting Drew Carey or Carrot Top, not someone speaking eloquently for the 68% of Murkins who are fed up with President Flightsuit.
    Whoever booked him had to know he would come in character; guess he wanted to spend more time with his family.

  2. Ginger Yellow says

    PZ, I’m sorry, but Cohen knows funny. After all, he’s a funny guy. His elementary school teacher told him so.

  3. says

    I have to agree with Cohen – Stephen Colbert missed an opportunity here. Just think of the powerful, entrenched, high-school-algebra-teacher lobby he could have skewered instead.

  4. idahogie says

    Cohen’s response is perfect. He’s a journalist/columnist, whose job it is to speak truth to power, complaining that Colbert failed to speak truth to power, when that’s exactly what Colbert did. Colbert’s entire act went right over Cohen’s head, and yet Cohen thinks that he is the funny guy.

    I also thought Colbert wasn’t very funny. But I was cheering his act. Finally, someone had the chance to break through the delicate chimp’s protective bubble of ignorance, and Colbert had the courage to make the most of it. And surprise, surprise, the media responds by belittling Colbert. “Who are you going to believe…the guy who was the target of Colbert’s performance, or your own lying eyes?”

  5. REBoho says

    The shunning that Stephen is getting is exactly what Washington MSM members fear. They have to dog-pile him now to reassure themselves that they are right, he’s not funny. It’s a self-reinforcing delusion. They have to declare him unfunny to prove to their peers that they belong.

    Stephen’s bit is no different than what he does every night, only longer. It’s satire. If you haven’t heard it before, it may come over harsh, but given the opportunity he needed to land as many body blows as he could in the time given. Funny thing is, they probably we’re expecting funny Papa Bear and got the Bizarro Papa Bear instead. The whole situation made me think of Twain’s “War Prayer”. Everyone thought the stranger was crazy after he explained the prayer. Now everyone has to say Stephen isn’t funny because it would contradict all the crap that flows from them, exposing them for what they are.

    They probably think he’s funny as long as they are alone. If I had to bet, I would guess it’s on the Tivo at home and they sit in the dark late at night laughing nervously, worried that someone might catch them watching.

  6. minimalist says

    PZ, I’m sorry, but Cohen knows funny. After all, he’s a funny guy. His elementary school teacher told him so.

    His mom says he’s cool.

    What an incredibly lame, desperate way to begin a column. I think Colbert seriously wounded Cohen, which makes me far too happy for words.

  7. says

    I’m a fan of Steven Colbert, but I didn’t laugh very much at his remarks.

    If his performance wasn’t very funny, maybe it’s because he wasn’t joking.

    (Five balls out of a possible 5)

  8. CanuckRob says

    I agree with Charlie, my spouse and I loved it and laughed hard at some bits but much was too painfully true to be funny. The best part to us was the audience, you could see some wanting to laugh but instead looking around nervously, others were offended and others just plain laughed. Some of the media types were the most offended.

    Colbert performed the job of the court jester, speak truth to power and expose them to ridicule when deserved. Most kings were cool with that, I doubt GWB can handle it.

  9. says

    God, he’s really on a roll lately. I was just complaining about the fact that he’s apparently discovered genetic determinism, and is preaching it up the valleys and down the glens without the slightest idea what he’s talking about.

    Many years ago in the Post magazine, someone did an analysis of how often columnists used first-person pronouns. Cohen beat out even sad-sack Bob Levey for ego density. No wonder he thinks algebra is worthless if he doesn’t like it.

  10. stand says

    I think everybody is missing the point. It’s not the substance of what Colbert said. It was the fact that he said what he did to that particular group of people and their subsequent reaction (or lack therof) that was “funny.”

  11. MikeM says

    Cohen wrote this:

    He referred to the recent staff changes at the White House, chiding the media for supposedly repeating the cliche “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” when he would have put it differently: “This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.” A mixed metaphor, and lame as can be.

    Now, I know this isn’t a blog on literary criticism, but I’ll ask anyway: How is this a mixed metaphor? I’m just not seein’ it.

    I haven’t seen the actual performance, but I read the entire transcript, and I thought this was hilarious. What’s funniest is what is not said here: Who in the White House decided hiring Colbert would be a good idea here? That still boggles the mind.

    I kept thinking to myself… “Dude. He’s four feet away from you.”

    Can’t see this generating an IRS audit, can you?

  12. PaulC says

    This is as far as I made it. Maybe I’ll try to read the rest, but…


    This is why Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.

    What? How do you bully a sitting a president? Or does Cohen feel that he was the one being bullied?

    Up to this point, I was thinking that maybe from a certain perspective I could understand Cohen’s point: Colbert was engaged in a transgressive act; circumstances called for good-natured ribbing, geared at avoiding any partisan offense. Colbert presumably knew that, and did his thing anyway, kind of like Sinead tearing up the picture of the pope–though I give Colbert more credit for wit and focus. I personally don’t think the monologue was very funny, but then I don’t think much about Bush is funny. Thinking about Bush mostly makes me sad and fearful about the state of American democracy, and that’s nothing to laugh about.

    If Colbert was bullying the DC press corps, I cannot think of a more deserving bunch of bullies to turn the tables on. If Cohen seriously meant Colbert was a bully to the president, then I’m speechless. I know Bush is thin-skinned, but maybe a little exposure to the anger of many Americans would be salutary. Does Cohen really expect us to look at poor little Georgie as the victim here?

  13. Clare says

    Cohen’s ridiculous piece reminds me of the regular fainting fits staged by sober (or screamingly funny, in Cohen’s case) journalists about the supposed lack of “civility” in public discourse. (Meaning, in this case, more “servility” towards the dear leader). Why is Cohen’s biggest concern whether Colbert was “rude” or not? Some more “rudeness” of this kind is exactly what we need. And in any case, Bush is simply an elected official; I don’t see why he should be shielded from blunt and biting criticism. You’d think he was king…. oh wait….

  14. PaulC says

    Now, I know this isn’t a blog on literary criticism, but I’ll ask anyway: How is this a mixed metaphor? I’m just not seein’ it.

    I’m no expert on zeppelins, but did the Hindenburg have a deck? It had a gondola, but I’m not sure if this had an open section that would be called a deck.

  15. PaulC says

    Who in the White House decided hiring Colbert would be a good idea here?

    I was wondering the same thing. Maybe Tom Tomorrow declined the invitation to do a comic slide presentation.

  16. markm says

    I’ve seen Colbert’s show a number of times and think it is all the things his miserable performance at the press dinner was not: clever, bitingly satiric and well-delivered. What he did in front of the Washington press corps and the President was ham-handed and embarrassingly assinine. While he took full advantage of the opportunity to throw rhetorical pies-in-the-face of the President they were surprisingly devoid of inventiveness (how many ways can one rehash tired cliches) or any sign of creativity. It was as though he had turned his right-wing-blow-hard persona of The Colbert Report on its head and became a humorless blithering Bush-basher for the evening.

    Actually, if that is what he intended and he was actually turning his trade-mark irony another 180 degrees – it was a indeed a bold stroke and, unfortunately, about a half-turn too clever.

  17. PaulC says

    One last thing.


    His defenders — and they are all over the blogosphere — will tell you he spoke truth to power. This is a tired phrase, as we all know,

    Actually, no, I don’t think it’s a tired phrase at all. It’s an inspiring phrase that never fails to make my heart go pitter-pat and my knees wobble thinking of giants like Gandhi or Martin Luther King. I would never suggest that Colbert came close to such legendary status, but anyone who is so jaded that they have to express hip cynicism at concept of speaking truth to power just doesn’t have the standing to comment on American democracy.

  18. says

    That’s why court jesters were kept around – sometimes they were the only ones who could tell the king the truth.

    Bush needs one desperately, and I hope he took Colbert more to heart than any of us can hope.

    Bush isn’t really as stupid as he plays like he is. He knows he’s failing, like he’s failed everything else in his life, and perhaps even he is tired of being in the bubble.

  19. WorldWideWeber says

    Now, I know this isn’t a blog on literary criticism, but I’ll ask anyway: How is this a mixed metaphor? I’m just not seein’ it.

    I’m no expert on zeppelins, but did the Hindenburg have a deck? It had a gondola, but I’m not sure if this had an open section that would be called a deck.

    I think that’s what Cohen had in mind. It’s unlikely the Hindenberg had a “deck.” But the gondola certainly had chairs. A “pure” version of the joke would have been: “… rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic … rearranging the chairs on the Hindenberg.” But such precision wouldn’t have been appropriate for the Colbert character (a fact-challenged right-wing blowhard). And everyone (except that proven funnyman R. Cohen) got it. End of exegesis.

  20. MikeM says

    I’m no expert on zeppelins, but did the Hindenburg have a deck? It had a gondola, but I’m not sure if this had an open section that would be called a deck.

    Ah, but the Hindenburg DID have a deck, of sorts:

    Really, that’s as close to a logical replacement for “deck” as you can get. So I’d say this is nothing like a mixed metaphor!

    (Note also the smoking room. That lost its irony, eh? Sorry.)

  21. Steve LaBonne says

    PaulC, that “tired phrase” quote really tells you everything you need to know about the Washington Post (and most of the rest of the MSM), doesn’t it. “Sucking up to power” works so much better for these overfed sycophants with the gall to style themselves “journalists”.

  22. says

    These “journalists” see things on a day to day basis. Some of the best actually consider the long-term impact of things – such as what something might mean for November. That’s about as far as they can think.

    Colbert’s probably that he was funny, but funny in a 100 years kind of way, the way that people see Twain as funny and Churchill as funny. These journalists don’t get it, but they wouldn’t have gotten Twain in his time or Churchill in his time. But I’m sure they all get Shecky Green!

  23. shargash says

    Colbert was a bit uneven, but then his show is that way. I thought the Wilson-Plame thing was very funny. So was his greeting to Scalia, in a slapsticky kind of way. Scalia evidently thought it was funny as well. The video went on a bit long, but the podium shot with it’s Gannon button was funny too.

    I honestly can’t fathom why anyone (especially anyone who claims to like Colbert) could think he wasn’t funny. I thought his performance was almost exactly like his show, allowing for the differences in environment and format.

    The Correspondents’ Association Dinner is the quintessential “suck up to power” gathering. Colbert not only called the press on sucking up to power, but he did it while they were sucking up to power. He caught them red handed and then pointed out the blood on their hands. That is why the Washington press corps was not amused. It is also why the performance bordered on the transcendent.

  24. Ed Darrell says

    Hmmm. Two almost contradictory thoughts.

    First, I like Cohen, generally, but he seems to have been inside the Beltway for a generation too long. Washingtonians who have been sucked into the vortex don’t see the humor in poking fun at what they do. It doesn’t occur to them that it might be the least bit silly. They’re still scratching their heads over the Enron thing — Ken Lay had something close to “plausible deniability,” and they can’t figure out why the legal system and securities regulators don’t see it and give Lay a pass.

    But, second, you know, he may be right. Colbert’s stuff is funny only if one doesn’t realize that between 40,000 and 150,000 people are dead because of the actions Colbert so starkly revealed. Colbert went beyond funny, to epiphany: Anyone can see how stupid and dangerous this administration has been from Colbert’s comments. And yet, they go to the Capitol and their K Street offices and GS-13 jobs, and have to act as if they are not enlightened. The cognitive dissonance can only be voiced by saying ‘it wasn’t funny.’ No, war never is. Incompetent, venal bumbling isn’t funny, either.

    It’s the difference betwee Hogan’s Heroes, the old TV series about Allied Pilots in a Nazi POW camp, and trying to set a similar sitcom in one of the Japanese internment camps, or in Corregidor after the Japanese invasion. [I’m trying really hard here not to commit a violation of Godwin’s Law, but it’s difficult.]

    Some things just aren’t funny, no matter how slapstick and stupid they are. Deficits that will keep our great-grandchildren paying 50% tax rates and tens of thousands of dead in Iraq just can’t be lampooned.

    It’s time for somebody to move on. But you know what? Colbert’s not the one at fault, and he’s not the one who needs to move on.

    George Bush isn’t funny anymore.

  25. David Harmon says

    A shrink I know had a totally different take on the scene — that Bush was essentially hiding behing the comedian, using him as a stalking horse to draw attention away from the real Bush, and prevent any “real” questions from being asked. I note that all you guys are discussing comedian and critic, instead of anything “Shrub” did or said.

  26. PaulC says

    BTW, am I the only to remember back when “That’s not funny.” was thought to be the purview of dour lefties–typically feminists.

  27. Karey says

    Maybe Colbert just plays his act a little too convincingly. I’ve seen a few blogs out there that think colbert is actually a rightwing pundit. They’re rare of course, but they’re so far gone in their rightwingdom that they don’t see the satire even, and think he’s right on. Wouldn’t it be funny if it was that kind of misunderstanding that got him booked at the dinner.

  28. says

    I enjoyed Colbert’s speech and I got a few laughs from it. It wasn’t as funny as his show, though, and he did seem slightly off his game. He seemed a bit torn about how to play his character in a setting that requires him to be more rigid and formal, as opposed to the animated ranting and raving he does on the show. He went for some of the more obvious jokes, too, which are great for an audience that hasn’t heard them yet but won’t suprise his fans.

    So I wasn’t rolling on the floor laughing, but I was extremely satisfied. I agree with the people who said that the best thing about is was not any particular punchline, but watching all the jerks in the room sit there and listen to half an hour of actual truthiness.

  29. acoltharp says

    Colbert died in the room. Not surprising, as it was full
    of humorless drones. (Not to mention war criminals and their enablers.) Out in the real world, however, HE ROCKED!

  30. Christopher says

    I’d like to think that that whole “My mom thinks I’m funny” thing was itself a joke, but the rest of the piece is so devoid of humour and so incredibly tin-eared about what’s funny that it’s hard to be charitable.


    Maybe this piece is itself and eloborate, Colbert-style satire, and Mr. Cohen is merely acting like a humourless drone.

    That’s much more comforting a thought then imagining that he was serious and that the Post actually thinks that such overly serious drivel is intelligent commentary.

  31. Chris says

    Am I the only one that thinks the lameness of the Hindenburg metaphor was intentional? It’s exactly the sort of weak, unconvincing nitpicking that administration apologists have been doing for real and the press corps (you know, the one Colbert was talking to) have been taking at face value.

    Of course the president didn’t leak national security secrets! He just declassified them without telling anyone! That’s *completely* different!

    Nobody ever revealed Valerie Plame’s covert identity! They only mentioned that Joe Wilson’s wife was involved! Not the same thing at ALL!

    I saw the Hindenburg line as a parody of this kind of apologetics, and as such, quite funny. I suppose if Cohen has been repeating those administration lines without questioning them, it’s not surprising that he missed the point. Tellingly, he criticizes the *form* of the statement (a mixed metaphor) rather than its *content*.

    Satire always has that “this would be funnier if it wasn’t so true” undertone to it; I don’t think that really detracts from the humor. If you can’t laugh at death, what *can* you laugh at? Laughing at death, or war, or racism, or Nazis doesn’t mean you don’t understand their real consequences.

    David has an interesting point though, about how Colbert became a stalking horse that refocused the discussion on Colbert and whether or not he should have said what he said; not on the administration’s actual flaws, but on the way they were pointed out. The administration’s defenders have to attack the messenger, or the medium, or the style of the message – because they know they can’t attack the substance of the message.

    Much like certain other non-reality-based communities discussed on this site. In fact, it now occurs to me how similar the criticisms of Colbert are to the recent rash of “angry/extremist atheist” complaining… who cares whether it’s true or not, it just isn’t nice to say so!