Wednesday, May 03, 2006
On last night's "Daily Show" Jon Stewart's lead fake news items included a report about the graduation ceremonies of a battalion of Iraqi soldiers, 1000 Sunnis strong, who, upon learning that they were to be assigned to protect a Shia area, immediately began a full-tilt rebellion, hollering and stripping off their uniforms. The appropriate film footage was provided, first showing the men marching somewhat clumsily on parade, and then mid-riot-- with the clear implication that these were the same people, and their two behaviors were separated by mere minutes. [In the era of Michael Moore-style editing, one is wise not to trust one's lying eyes on these matters.]
I have been unable to verify from any other source that this event ever occurred, which is not to say that Stewart's show pretends to be a reliable source of true news. However, he normally doesn't have to stretch facts too far to find his fuel for mockery-- it's all about context.
And it's the context of his fake report that really irritated me. He juxtaposed the set-up piece about the troop rebellion with what he characterized as the sole available item of good news from Iraq: that there are plans for a water-park tourist attraction in Baghdad.
This he treated as if it were evidence of both insanity and stupidity. Yes indeed, what can one do but ridicule the very idea that anyone in Iraq is hopeful for the future, looking to transform their besieged surroundings into a place that will one day reflect the past greatness of this historic city, or at the very least to inject into its present insecurity some belief in the possibility of normalcy.
The truth is that even during the much-ballyhooed "shock and awe" of March 2003, Baghdad was a city where lights were on and traffic flowed day and night-- we saw it on CNN's stationary camera which remained after their reporters got evicted. And to this day, in most of the city commerce goes on at a great rate-- people eat in cafés, and purchase cars and electrical appliances (including once-forbidden communications technology) in unprecedented numbers.
Furthermore, those of us who believe in keeping an eye on reality instead of comforting ourselves with our set fantasies, have followed the periodic reports of Iraqi plans for the eventual return of tourism-- courageous and entrepreneurial Iraqis (yes-- you know-- those crazy brown A-rabs who live over there near that continent place) have been busy drawing up plans for hotels and civic improvements which they truly believe will be achievable sooner rather than later. And good for them. I suspect they will persevere, with or without Jon Stewart's approval. They have faith in their people. Jon Stewart craves acceptance from his.
So I'm prepared to buy that the "Daily Show" rebellion footage had its genesis in some episode of truth. But the context-- that nothing good ever happens, or ever will, in the vast pile of rubble that is Iraq-- falls into the category of malicious and manipulative LIE. It is a lie about, primarily, the day-to-day, person-to-person small victories being ground out by the American/coalition military in the field and their Iraqi allies. Stewart can do his thing and have great shows without resorting to insulting and condescending to these people. I wish he would. When he's on his game there's nobody better.
Stephen Colbert's game is of a different kind than Stewart's. I watched his opening show with great anticipation, but was disappointed. His usual schtick didn't seem sustainable for a full half-hour. But he found his groove, and mostly he's completely hilarious.
However, he got up in front of President Bush and the assembled Washington press corps, and DIED. Now, I don't envy anybody who had to follow the Bush-and-doppelganger (impersonator Steve Bridges) duo
who had completely disarmed what can only be described as a substantially hostile audience pretending to be civil for one night. But Colbert just misfired, and I think he would have done so with this material whether the President had upstaged him or not. Some of it is funny, but a lot of it just goes thud and lies there.
There was an overall real mean-spiritedness about the routine (even towards the press), which was a mistake, and is not typical of what he does on his television show. Worst of the night: the bit about keeping generals from retiring began on the taste borderline, and then crossed over into what can only be called shameful calumny with the closer: "If you're strong enough to go on one of those pundit shows, you can stand on a bank of computers and order men into battle." That one was truly disgusting.
He seemed to be falling in and out of his O'Reilly parody persona, when consistency as one or the other would have served him better. Mostly he just went on too long on a given theme-- like Bush's approval rating, for instance: again, borderline at best, and then he floggged it to death. It didn't help that the President(s) had pre-empted a lot of his jokes (and done them better). He paused and stared at his notes several times, as if jettisoning material that no longer looked promising-- at these times he seemed in danger of breaking into a Nixonian sweat.
A few of the bits were just too obscure, like the line on Scott McLellan, who was said to have retired because he "really felt like he needed to spend more time with Andrew Card's children." What was that about? Presumably McLellan doesn't have any children-- whether by choice or by fate, is that proper fodder for comedy? If it's a sterility problem, was the cruelty of the joke worth a laugh? Shades of Al Franken's "jokes" about Newt Gingrich's adolescent daughter and various people's ex-wives, back in '96.
The Colbert-as-press-secretary video was pretty good, and ended up, perhaps unintentionally, being a rather unflattering snapshot of some of the more prominent members of the White House press corps. Maybe that's why the reaction to it was tame-- or maybe the whole appearance had just gone on too long, with too many seconds of dead air.
It's not that the room was hostile to Colbert-- they erupted into laughter at the truly funny stuff. But the funny stuff was rare, and the mean parts were really mean, especially the slam at the generals-- that kind of thing can rob the routine of its oxygen.
In the cold light of day, Colbert's laugh-challenged performance has gone unmentioned by the media who couldn't bring themselves to gloss it up, and lauded beyond measure by those whose partisanship impairs their ability to discern what they're seeing. Some of the more myopic commentators have praised him for his courage. Daniel at Bloggledygook pours cold water all over that:
... it has become tiresome to hear talk of courage in this case, as if Colbert is in some fear for his life, but chose to stand against the fascist state and mock the president and media. Rubbish. The easiest place in the world to be snarky is Washington D.C. The Capitol virtually runs on snark. I pointed out that courage would be exemplified by an Iraqi mocking Saddam (when still in office) where speaking against the government carried very real danger.
The other point that begs to be made is that the shrieking about police states, etc. demonstrates just how humorless much of Colbert's audience is. There is less comedy being made than the fiction that Colbert and Jon Stewart "speak" for some voiceless mass. In the age of the ubiquitous opinion, screaming at the top of one's lungs that one's speech is being stolen is absurd and in itself, the best form of satire practiced today.