Hey, ever hear this one?
Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: That’s not funny.
But it is funny, isn’t it? So why is that? Let me hazard an analysis, which I’ll extend to Colbert at the correspondent’s dinner. I’ll assume you’re familiar with The Simpsons, The Marx Brothers, and Colbert’s performance, as that saves me the trouble of looking up links.
The typical form of the light bulb joke, of course, is:
Q: How many members of class “C” does it take to change a light bulb?
A: n, where n is a finite integer > 1: One to change the light bulb, and n-1 to perform some orthogonal activity stereotypic to members of class C that decreases the efficiency of the process of changing the light bulb.
The substrate of the joke is the insult that members of class C are too stupid (or otherwise incompetent) to do something as simple as changing a light bulb. So the first joke, above, amuses us on two levels: it makes fun of feminists for being humorless (in addition to being stupid), and it violates our assumptions about the form of the joke. When the joke is about the form of the joke, it’s what we brainiacs on nerd patrol call “meta”.
Sometimes jokes are meta-meta-jokes, as when Homer Simpson, a judge on the panel at the Springfield Film Festival, gives his vote for best film to “Man Gets Hit in Groin by Football,” because, in Homer’s words, “It works on so many levels!” Obviously the film doesn’t work on so many levels: it works solely on the reptile brain level, Homer’s natural cruising ground. What works on so many levels, rather, is Homer’s utterance that the movie works on so many levels: it lampoons people who use phrases like that, it illustrate’s Homer’s cluelessness in stupidly using the phrase without knowing what it means, etc. In other words the gag simultaneously makes fun of the pomposity of the phrase “it works on so many levels”, and works on so many levels. Because the joke is about the joke’s being about itself, it’s kind of meta squared.
Last Saturday night at the annual meeting of the k3vvl k1D5 klvb, also known as the Washington Blowhards and Presidential Suckups Club, also known as the White House Correspondent’s Association Annual Dinner, Stephen Colbert was hired to do funny. Instead of doing funny, however, he did meta.
And boy, was it funny. And it gets funnier every day.
Let’s revisit the premise of the light bulb joke: that members of class C are so clueless as to be unable to figure out how to do something as obvious and trivially easy to do as changing a light bulb. We might further abstract the joke as:
Q: How many members of class “C” does it take to do a trivially simple but sometimes vitally important task, “T”?
A: n, where n is a finite integer > 1: One to do T, and n-1 to perform some orthogonal activity stereotypic to members of class C that decreases the efficiency of the process of performing T.
For his funny, Colbert, using a transparent code that preserved the ostensible decorum of the evening, posed the following question:
Q: How many members of class C does it take to preserve the constitutional system of the United States of America and a rational approach to solving complex problems upon whose solution rests the fate of the world, where “C” is the class that includes the President of the United States, his administration, and the “elite” cadre of journalists present in the hall tonight, (whether physically or virtually)?
What’s implied here is that in light of the constitutional system that was figured out long ago and handed pretty much intact to George W. Bush, and in light of scientific thinking, similarly bequeathed to all of us, merely not destroying the country and perhaps the earth would be about as difficult as changing a light bulb. In other words, you would have to be really egregiously stupid to completely fuck it up.
Now, the mere asking of Colbert’s question is amusing enough, recalling as it does the transgressive humor of the Marx Brothers, particularly Groucho, with George W. Bush and the Washington Press Corps dutifully playing the Margaret Dumont role of the at-sea dowager. I am particularly thinking of Duck Soup.
Perform this thought experiment: imagine that instead of Stephen Colbert in formal evening dress addressing the dias, it were Groucho Marx addressing the assembled dignitaries of Freedonia. Would you have to change any of the lines? I don’t think so. For example, take this gag:
I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.
It’s pure Groucho. In fact, the whole speech is pure Groucho. It would not work half so well were Colbert dressed casually, for example, doing a wry, bemused Jerry Seinfeld in blue jeans and sneakers. Of course, Groucho was over-the-top and Colbert is restrained, but my point is that both Groucho and Colbert pretend to adopt the language (which includes the fashion language) of the ruling class in order to ridicule it.
Note that in the gag about photo-ops, Colbert is equally deriding Bush and the press. Bush’s photo-ops could not happen without the complicity of the press. After all, it wasn’t you or I who was given the “ops” to “photo”. We were not invited onto the deck of that aircraft carrier. Like Ellen DeGeneres said, if two people are in an elevator and one of them farts, everybody knows who did it. And clearly our press has delivered nothing but stinkbombs for the last five years. No wonder the ballroom audience didn’t laugh: nobody likes having their flatulence problem brought out in public. As Dan Froomkin has pointed out (in a White House Briefing currently behind a registration wall):
[Colbert’s]subversive message, at its core: That this Bush guy is basically a joke. And that the mainstream press is a joke, because it takes Bush at his word.
When Colbert tells Bush, “I have nothing but contempt for these people. I know how to handle these clowns,” it’s the only literally true assertion in his talk.
All this, of course, is pretty direct. When you look the president in the eye and tell him his administration is a Nazi blimp about to go down in flames, you’re not being especially subtle. So where does the “meta” part come it?
It comes in the way the insider, established press responds to Colbert’s implied question, which we can paraphrase as,
Q: How many people in this room does it take to destroy the earth?
With one, mighty chorus, in four part harmony, with accompanying bells, triangles and glockenspiels they respond:
A:THAT’S NOT FUNNY!
Oh, but it is funny!
Take for example, this wankery by Richard Cohen, bloviating pundit of the bloviating class’s paper of record, The Washington Post, who weighs in with the official announcement that Stephen Colbert at the Correspondent’s Dinner wasn’t funny.
(Props to diarist cynic of daily kos for reminding us where we’ve seen the filmic exemplar of the “Colbert-wasn’t-funny” Pecksniffs before: in Lt. Hauck, the humorless propriety-obsessed drone in Good Morning Viet Nam, masterfully portrayed by Bruno Kirby as hapless foil to Robin Williams’s Adrian Cronauer.)
And this is where the “meta” part comes in. The more the Cohens (Lt. Haucks) bloviate, the funnier Colbert gets. It’s the gift that keeps on giving (note: I made that observation before Joan Walsh made it at Salon).
The “newspeople” who were in the room when Colbert spoke (physically or virtually — Cohen wasn’t actually there, he says: but logically he was) were merely props. Colbert couldn’t care a fig whether they laughed at his joke: they WERE his joke. And as Cohen proves, they still are the joke.
Oh, here’s a good one: Tucker Carlson as Lt. Hauck, check it out.
Now, Cohen might counter (and he does) that this was rude of Colbert, to treat his in situ audience as mere props. But they INVITED him. Lordy, lordy. It’s too precious. I can just hear Richard Cohen now, in Bruno Kirby’s voice: “What you are saying is not funny. It is not funny.”
Some of you old folks out there may remember the comedian Don Rickles. Rickles had one schtick: he insulted people. If you hired Don Rickles to be your entertainment, that means that you hired him to insult people. That was what he did. If you invite Stephen Colbert to give you truthiness, he’s going to give you truthiness.
But more to the point, and this is inescapable, it was Bush himself, who, two years ago, with his infamous WMD gag video at a similar function, established that there was no lower limit to the taste allowed in jokes at such events. When you ridicule people who have died under your orders in service to their country, you’ve pretty much established that anything goes. Bush himself has made clear that any amount of obscenity is OK, as long as you’re wearing the right clothes.
So now Colbert’s speech belongs to the ages. Long after everybody has forgotten what else got said that night, they’ll be talking about Colbert’s “Hindenburg” talk. And long after anybody remembers what Elizabeth Bumiller or Richard Cohen wrote about that night, they’ll remember what they didn’t write; the fart that we all smelt, but they could never acknowledge. Now that’s what I call working on so many levels.