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Home > Culture and Society

Grin and Colbert It

12 May 2006

'To actually sit here, at the same table with my hero, George W. Bush, to be this close to the man. I feel like I'm dreaming. Somebody pinch me. You know what? I'm a pretty sound sleeper - that may not be enough. Somebody shoot me in the face.'
- Stephen Colbert


What did we do before we could watch video online without some kind of crazy supercomputer type deal? Picked our feet with twigs, that's what. YouTube and ifilm and Google Video are among the best wastes of time in this not-baddest of all possible worlds, but they can also, like the rest of the net, be tools for good. They came into their own last week when they all carried, in part, the film of Stephen Colbert's White House Correspondents Dinner speech, a speech whose impact in all manner of ways shouldn't be underestimated. This is the gist of it: American satirist does in-character speech for the press and Bush, skewering his and the GOP's idiocy and incompetence and irresponsibility, using phrases like 'rearranging the deckchairs on the Hindenburg', and essentially tearing him a new tushie with only a gossamer layer of irony for protection. Bound to garner the odd bit of passing interest, then. Thus this week there's been a bit of a squabble over which video outlet has been copyright infringe-iest, only serving to illustrate the importance of Colbert's Bush-becue.

C-Span - a nonprofit network - first showed the speech, and was pretty pissed when the footage appeared elsewhere. Letters were written, and clips removed.

YouTube had had 41 clips of the speech, which had been viewed 2.7 million times in two days. Google Video has now been allowed to show the speech in full, along with President Bush's cringy routine with a (scarily good) impersonator, and the whole caboodle can be seen at www.c-span.org. The removal of the clips from YouTube led them to gripe about the favour they'd done C-Span by lending the speech a sort of viral cachet, enlargening its presence, etc. A fair gripe, although it does bring up the whole Napster free content naughtiness issue - as such it should give big companies with content further pause, remind them that these matters still need addressing, and won't be solved by serving papers on ten-year-old downloaders. Bloggers also grumbled about how it represented the stifling of a daring leftie voice. It's a continuation of what has been an amazing explosion of opinion and many-faceted debate, which, indeed, probably couldn't have got as big as it did without YouTube's illicit bitty-broadcasting.

Google a moment on this, and you'll find the kind of massive pool of content that tends to puddle up around events involving politics and entertainment in equal measure. It's gratifying and exhausting. There's virulent criticism, gushing praise, snarky satire, more gushing (www.thankyoustephencolbert.org - read it and feel slightly uncomfortable), from blogs and the mainstream press. There's opinion that the right-wing media's choice to ignore the speech altogether is the real story, that it did them no favours at all and only confirmed liberals' view of its stomping partisanship and refusal to acknowledge both sides. (As if the right-wing media give a hoot, or a holler.) There's Jon Stewart's succulent appraisal of it as 'balls-alicious', whinings that it wasn't funny and complaints that it was just another example of a refusal to deal with the real issues by hiding inside jokes, repeating things everyone already knows. On the other side, suggestions that the speech wasn't to the room at all, but to the world at large - Colbert must have known that his words would be liberally spread all over the net and his performance goggled at by many times more sets of peepers than were present in the room. Also the suggestion that whether or not it was laugh-out-loud funny, that wasn't the point, which is correct. The point was that someone, in real time, sliced through the warm cushion of yes-ness that surrounds the President and presented him with a thoroughly unimpressed, bastard evil, unforgivingly sarcastic appraisal of his years in office. Bush was a captive audience, could do nothing but grin along, and the same went for everyone else present, although the discomfort and tension was palpable. Balls-alicious just about sums it up. To most left-wing US bloggers and commentators Colbert is now a man who cannot move around without a customised wheelbarrow.

It all says a lot about everything, this brouhaha - governments, media, comedy, political discourse. It's also a reminder of the awesome bulk of wordage that can be generated in hours, the overwhelming babble of the Internet in which it seems that points are worn more than they're nailed down. It's hard to keep your feet in such a sea of net-noise. It balloons and snowballs - look, we're adding to it right now, with the hot air and melty ice of more content. It's easy to get weary, suffocated by this glut. But then that was partly Colbert's point, that you have to keep cutting through that sort of ennui. Whether or not it's the first time the President has been addressed this way, whether or not the things he pointed out are old hat, Colbert was by making the speech the way he did making the point that you can't afford to get complacent, ever. *Ever*.

As with Jon Stewart's Oscar hosting, even people who weren't offended didn't find it funny. Satire is a pretty fickle mistress, hardest to do when real life is at its most absurd as in the US at present, and it *isn't* always funny. Sometimes the amusement is just in the existence of the quip, not its content. It might not have pinioned Bush in the way we might hope - he doesn't appear to connect himself as a Good Man with any of his dreadful actions and their awful implications, and one smirking satirist won't change that. What it should have done, even if only momentarily, is embarrass him. His skit with the impersonator was meant to be a hearty prod at himself as an unrepentant mangler of the Queen's English, but any self-deprecation he has is false - it's just an extension of his swaggering, impervious pride and sense of indestructability. It's inverted arrogance. 'Hey, even *I* can't take me down, and I'm the mutt's superpowerful nuts, guys.' Any laughter he incurs at his own expense is hollow and manipulated.

Colbert's thoroughly withering speech may have been framed in a buddy-buddy elbow-in-ribs fashion, like a best man teasing the groom about all the sheep he shagged, but it oozed real bile. It was a gorgeous act of defiance and disrespect. Google Video must be dead chuffed.


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