Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Is Colbert Better or Worse Than Gail Collins?

By Mike Dorf


On Monday I gave Gail Collins a hard time for using her column for a not-very-funny running joke about Mitt Romney's dog.  Should I  be equally annoyed with Stephen Colbert, who books interesting guests with important things to say, and then typically uses most of his interview time to make jokes that prevent the guests from saying much of anything, all with the apparent goal of showing that Colbert is smarter than the guest?

A particularly egregious example was Colbert's 2010 interview of Yale law professor Akhil Amar.  Colbert accused Amar of insensitivity to 9/11 victims for coming near Ground Zero with a Muslim-sounding name and then asked him whether "the mom" of an "anchor baby" "has to be here" or whether she can "squirt" the baby over the border to acquire birthright citizenship.

By Colbert's low standards, he was very deferential to retired Justice John Paul Stevens last week and to  Harvard's Larry Tribe earlier this week.  Still, it would not be quite accurate to say that the Stevens and Tribe interviews were informative in any real sense.  They showed that Stevens and Tribe are both good sports and that they "get" Colbert.  But any serious point that either of them made was quickly used simply as the setup for a joke by Colbert.  The same is generally true for guests on Colbert's show.

It would seem way off base to criticize Colbert for not taking his job seriously enough.  The whole show is a joke.  Colbert is a parody of a right-wing talk-show host, right?

Well, yes, but then again, no.  I confess to not regularly watching O'Reilly or any other FoxNews right-wing media personalities, but I have involuntarily seen enough of them to know that their interview segments look almost nothing like Colbert's.  True, many of these right-wing hosts are blowhards.  But they are blowhards with a substantive agenda.  As an interviewer, Colbert's agenda is simply to dominate his guests, mixing in his (parody of) right-wing blather as part of the domination, but in a way that lacks verisimilitude.  By contrast, when Colbert is just "reporting" on the news, he is actively and reasonably closely parodying these figures.  Likewise, his running--and real--bit with his SuperPac does a brilliant job of exposing the absurdity of our campaign finance regime.

So I end up wondering what the point of the interview segments is.  I think perhaps that a show that aims at political satire in the sort of cool, detached way that Colbert and Jon Stewart both do just can't do interviews very well.  They end up being either not very funny (Stewart when he is serious) or funny in a way that, unlike the rest of the show, does not make a satirical point (Stewart when he is being funny, Colbert most of the time).  And on some the occasions when Colbert or Stewart is deferential to the guest, the segment ends up being just a puff piece on the order of Larry King.

Accordingly, I don't feel annoyed with Colbert in the way I am annoyed at Collins.  How could I?  Comedy Central doesn't purport to be the Gray Lady.  But at the same time, if anyone were asking for my production advice, I'd say lose or re-imagine your interview segments.  Not that anyone is asking.

8 comments:

N.M.C. said...

I think the interview segment of Colbert continues the parody of Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly pretty accurately in a certain way.

Both Hannity and O'Reilly pursue their agenda during interview segments primarily by dominating their guests--asking absurd leading questions, refusing to let guests finish answering, degrading their answers with mockery rather than a substantive response, ganging up on the guest by sometimes having the opposition guest being confronted by the host and another like-minded guest, etc.

O'Reilly and Hannity get to make their point at the expense of their guest, pursuing their agenda, but there's no real meaningful dialogue taking place at all. Inviting the guest on just serves to create the appearance of giving both sides a chance.

Colbert employs these tactics too, making the interviews obviously absurd--but when a left leaning guest is on the show, it wouldn't be funny or much of a parody to just ask absurd questions/take absurd positions and let the guest knock them down with serious responses. So Colbert instead just goes over the top, and the guests say nothing.

It's for much the same reason that Hannity and O'Reilly usually don't interview right leaning thinkers--its boring to just have the two parties agreeing, and fails to show the host as a dominating persona able to expose all as inferior.

This is why the best Colbert interviews are with right-leaning guests--although they seldom appear on Colbert anymore. When he did get right leaning guests, he was usually excellent at asking them questions that seemingly applauded their positions, yet exposed the absurdity of them, forcing the guest into a very difficult situation of either softening their position/sounding like a lefty or appearing to agree with Colbert's extreme take.

Jim Doyle said...

Your "not very funny" line about Seamus Romney being tied (albeit in a crate) to the roof of a station wagon is correct. Gail Collins has made it funny by showing what a mindless Doofus Romney was when a) he did that, and b)he hosed down the car and then the dog who had lost control. Why didn't Romney rent a Winnebago for five boys and a dog on a 12-hour trip? The guy is mostly machine. Jim Doyle 56.

Joe said...

"Still, it would not be quite accurate to say that the Stevens and Tribe interviews were informative in any real sense."

I disagree. The Stevens interview was quite informative, particularly as far as short interview segments go. Stevens noted, e.g., corporations have some rights as persons, but persons legally have different types of rights in certain situations. This is something that is continuously missed by many people, who ridicule the very idea that corporations are "persons" at all.

I'm a regular viewer of Colbert. His show is satire but it is apparent that his true beliefs are more progressive, and this comes out in various ways. He also repeatedly gives his guests time to make certain points. Even with this schtick, this informs more than your given Letterman guest.

Take another guest on the day Stevens was on -- it was a rather interesting discussing by a MOMA representative of the famous Washington crossing the Delaware painting. I, am I doubt I'm alone, checked out more than one book promoted on his show.

It is a bit off to compare him with Collins but if you compare him to some other show, let's say some local talk show on a book tour, how much more info is really provided?

Joe said...

"quite informative" is probably a bit much, but honestly, I think the appearance was informative. The humor was like sugar to help the medicine go down.

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I disagree. The Stevens interview was really informative, especially as much as quick interview segments go. Stevens noted, e.g.,Buy Gold WOWof people, who ridicule the amazingly system that companies are "persons" at all.

Funny Games said...

This is why the best Colbert interviews are with right-leaning guests--although they seldom appear on Colbert anymore. When he did get right leaning guests, he was usually excellent at asking them questions that seemingly applauded their positions, yet exposed the absurdity of them, forcing the guest into a very difficult situation of either softening their position/sounding like a lefty or appearing to agree with Colbert's extreme take. buywindows7keys.com
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