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U.S. MIDTERM ELECTIONS: OPPOSITION IS EASY—COMEDY IS HARD

 

By C. Antonio Romero

SAN FRANCISCO, 9 November 2006—Even more overwhelming than the tsunami of voter discontent that apparently washed away the Republican hold on both houses of the United States Congress on Tuesday is the tidal surge that will leave us all standing waist-deep in post-election verbiage (and bloggage) from now until the seating of the newly elected represenatives and senators.
 


Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report


To keep our addition to the problem to a minimum, we will add only a few observations. File them under the rubric: "Opposition is easy. Comedy is hard."

  • John Kerry may be smart enough, and brave enough, and sophisticated enough to be a better President than George W. Bush. Yet his oddly tone-deaf, clumsy attempts at humor—along with faux pas like ordering a Philly cheesesteak with Swiss instead of American Cheese Whiz—leave us wondering about his political savvy. While it cannot be said that the U.S. is better off with Bush in the White House, in some critical moment, would he say or do something else that would rub people the wrong way? Press an advantage where he doesn't catch how it will aggravate an opponent with a long memory? Perhaps the Democrats, at least, are better off with someone else at the helm—someone more deftly spontaneous, less smugly superior.
     
  • Keith Olbermann, on MSNBC, has that deftness, on a good day, as well as the bravery and the smarts—though, alas, he's just a sportscaster turned news anchor. Olbermann's show is one of the few things that works at MSNBC: straight (that is, true) news, but told with tongue planted firmly in cheek, clear Democratic-leaning sympathies, and, often, with an arch tone that generally weaves between irony and a directness that, these days, seems like a kind of irony redoubled. (Sincerity on television is so rare these days that it's disorienting.)

    After a strong beginning during the 2004 election cycle, the show faltered a bit, but when Olbermann's attention was focused on the 2006 races, his news and analysis became ever better and more frank, taking on topics from the Iraq debacle to the "death of habeas corpus" and a series on the hollowness of the "faith-based initiatives" the president tossed his evangelical base as a bone.

    The only part of the show where the tone goes awry is, alas, his occasional Comment segments—incisive, adult, sincerely felt, but a bit bombastic, overwritten, and, ultimately too heavy to sit through, even for many die-hard Olbermann fans. ("Bless him, he tries," said a Russian observer, admiring his earnest, blunt critiques of the administration, but nonetheless unwilling to watch him for more than 30 seconds at a time.) The lighter touch that makes his show work goes leaden, which is a shame, as these are clearly the parts of the show to which he is most attached. Watch Olbermann every night—but once the opening political segments are done, you can safely tune out without missing much. 
     
  • Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, for many Americans a key source of news, was surprisingly flaccid in the face of the a Democratic victory. The only moment with any real snap was a bit about the Democrats of the House concluding that their victory was "a trap", and forming a circle facing outward so that no one could sneak up behind them. The rest, including much of an interview with an elated, justly proud Howard Dean, was adolescent flailing. Stewart's heart is in the right place, but he may be losing his edge.
     
  • Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report, a spinout of The Daily Show, was much crisper, with a great segment in which a wordless Colbert plunges into despair, drink, and dread of gay weddings and "Speaker Pelosi", then finally rebounds when he sees the hidden advantages of handing the Democrats—who "can't fix anything"—the flaming disaster of Iraq , positioning Jeb Bush for his '08 run... 

    One of television's most subversive half-hours, Colbert is known for giving bizarre mock interviews, which deliver an American version of the Borat treatment from a deliberately thick bizarro-conservative gasbag character (based, in part, on right-wing blowhards like Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly). These generally work, whether or not the subjects are in on the joke.

    Colbert will have more room to work than Stewart going forward, as his format builds in its own irony. No danger of sincerity ever piercing the veil of truthiness here.

 

C. Antonio Romero is the Nouveau editor at Culturekiosque.com 



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