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Wilson 2008: Irony and Silence/Ironies of Silence: On the Politics of Not Laughing
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 18 Numbers 2, 3, & 4, 2008

Irony and Silence/Ironies of Silence: On the Politics of Not Laughing

Nathan Wilson
Northwest Missouri State University

Stephen Colbert making a point at the lectern
Image retrieved August 7, 2008 from 01JG7ZTcUT840/610x.jpg

Abstract: This essay examines Stephen Colbert’s keynote address at the 2006 White House correspondents’ dinner (April 29) and the resulting discussion between mainstream media news and their colleagues on the internet, a situation that has since been labeled “Colbertgate”. Colbert’s humorous address can be classed as irony, parody and possibly satire, but this does not necessarily translate, as Michael Scherer of claims, into détournement; Debord and the Situationists have rejected parody as capable of enacting détournement. However, taking a critical rhetoric perspective of political practices, I argue that humorous irony can incite practices of political agency not via the laughter, which is expected, but via the silences it provokes.  Three forms of silence thus become prominent: silencing, silent judgment and silent thought. In this last, I find the most potential for a critical rhetoric to act as détournement.


On April 29, 2006, Stephen Colbert delivered a keynote address at the White House correspondents’ dinner. At the time of the address, Colbert, who began as an improvisational comic and later served a stint as a Daily Show correspondent, had recently acquired his own program, The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central. Though he was invited to give the address by Mark Smith, Associated Press reporter and then- president of the White House Correspondents' Association, though many in the press were apparently fans of his show, and though Colbert performed his usual persona made popular on his show, which has been called a parody of right-wing conservatism, an “imitation of the quintessential GOP talking head – Bill O’Reilly meets Scott McClellan” (Scherer), nevertheless, the press corps could not seem to find the humor in his satirical remarks when made before the President. The audience didn’t lau gh and further, didn’t report on the incident. As a result, the address, carried on C- SPAN and subsequently uploaded to (where it quickly became one of the hottest downloads of the weekend) became inflammatory, inciting a discussion about journalistic responsibility between mainstream media news and their colleagues on the internet, a situation that has since been labeled “Colbertgate.” [1]

Colbert’s humorous address can be classed as irony, parody and possibly satire, but this does not necessarily translate as Michael Scherer of claims, into détournement. [2] What Guy Debord and the Situationists’ call détournement is the detour, diversion, hijacking, corruption or misappropriation of the capitalist spectacle enacted to bring about its demise – in short, a vested political act with some humorous potential (Harold). Beginning from a perspective of critical rhetoric, I address the possibilities of ironic messages such as Colbert’s to serve as or enact détournement. In this essay, I examine the discourse for the signs of an underlying logic by and through which humorous irony is judged as deeply political and/or funny. I am not asking whether the broader discussion or the jokes themselves are political or funny (or both, or ne ither), but rather, what are the conditions of possibility, the underlying logics by which they are judged and how such judgments impact the possibilities for détournement.

My thesis is simple, even pendantic, and yet it contradicts most of the research done on political humor. Though even recent studies find that humorous, ironic satire fails to further any one particular political goal, I argue that ironic texts are useful in that they can provoke thought, which is itself a worthwhile political goal. [3] However, to understand this, we have to get past traditional notions of rhetoric and embrace a rhetoric that is pagan. In examining this event and its interpretations via secondary and tertiary texts, I hope to display the moments at which the reception of humorous irony becomes problematic, when an easy reception as humor or rejection thereof is impossible; when the audience is provoked to thought. Before analyzing the controversy, I wish to take a moment to examine Colbert’s speech, which, as the occasion for critique, deserves a moment of our time. Then I turn to the controversy and seek the possibi lities for humorous irony in the enigmatic moment of audience silence. In this discussion, silence is differentiated from laughter (the preferred response to humor) and from its antithesis, outrage. Because laughter and outrage are read as a simple polarization, I posit silence as a moment of prudential judgment, of phronesis that provokes thought, which is the goal of détournement.


Colbert began his address with self-denigration, but employed a comparison between himself and the President that ultimately linked them both in a derogatory fashion. As he warmed up, Colbert’s self-referential barbs seemed increasingly aimed at the President, and because they the most often quoted segments of his address, I will include a few of them here. Some of his remarks were shallow: “we're not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We're not members of the fact-inista”. Some were not so shallow:

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.

Then Colbert switched gears; still claiming allegiance to the President, he focused on the press corps itself, and these comments are not so shallow:

And as excited as I am to be here with the president, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America…. what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in Eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason – they're super depressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good – over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

Colbert then began to work the room, pointing out individual political figures and celebrities in the crowd, for the most part at the shallow level, but sometimes with unexpected teeth. Finally, Colbert brings us home with a video clip that would serve as his audition for the job of White House Press Secretary. He believes he’s a good candidate because he has “nothing but contempt for these people [the Washington press corps]”.

In its ironic form, Colbert’s message affords many possible readings. While he doles out compliments to the President, many believe we are invited to read Colbert’s remarks as “left-handed” or tongue-in-cheek – as verbal irony, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used.” Traditionally, many believe that this opposition results in the negation of the stated by the intended, after all, responding with a photo-op is not the same as a practical, pragmatic response to national tragedy. However, if Colbert’s treatment of the President is tongue-in-cheek, when he turns his attention to the press, we could read his criticism the same way; when he congratulates them for missing reportage on tax cuts, WMDs and global warming we are invited to read it as bad for America; but by the same token, when he scolds them for reporting on NSA wireta ps and secret eastern European prisons we are invited to see it as a step in the right direction. [4] In other words, if Colbert is a discordant narrator, simply and consistently stating the opposite of his convictions, then we must recognize that his sword cuts both ways. [5] In truth, not all of Colbert’s respondents read his treatment of the press negatively. Tim Grieve of and later Neva Chonin of the San Francisco Chronicle find that in the video, Colbert actually presents the possibility that the White House correspondents might unite and rise up against the W. Bush administration. [6]

Further, Colbert’s speech is not just verbal, but performative, and his persona is thus a possible source of humor. Colbert’s views are not synonymous with the President’s actual views, but a reduction thereof. Thus Colbert misrepresents the facts of the matter; as a narrator, Colbert’s persona is not just discordant, but unreliable as well. [7]  Colbert’s ironic persona as a parody of right-wing conservatism results in a further source of irony – the relation between the stated and the plausible. Therefore, we may laugh at the effigy of the President he has constructed and all the more at Colbert for believing the effigy is the reality.

The most positive reading, then, is that Colbert allows his audience to laugh at him as a parody of right wing conservatism and via that fun-house mirror, to laugh at a misrepresented (misunderestimated?) President of the present and the press corps of the past, while celebrating the current press corps – the people who have begun conducting investigative reporting again and might perhaps unite to cause problems for the W. Bush administration. Given the occasion, speaker and audience, this might be the type of speech that would meet expectations and incite laughter. However, this was not the primary way it was taken up, neither by the mainstream media nor by the critics on the internet.

Given the possibility of such an innocuous reading, what the response of the press (both mainstream and in the blogosphere) displays is not that there is an easy, pre-determined and intended meaning that can be read by the simple application of clear social norms and rules – what we, following from Jean François Lyotard and Maurice Charland will call litige – but a complex and sometimes haphazard, prudential form of judgment (or phronesis). What we are dealing with are competing rhetorics, and rhetoric deals not with the certain, but with the possible, the probable, the plausible. By the mainstream press’ and bloggers’ reactions alike, we can note that irony is not a simple negation of the stated by the intended, but as Linda Hutcheon and Kenneth Burke would each have it, an interplay between two (or more) possible meanings. The point here is not that peopl e cannot draw conclusions or make judgments, but that they do so from particular subjective perspectives and with particular political investments. [8] Nevertheless, it is these judgments (as expressed in how the text is “taken up”) that matter.

To examine the uptake of Colbert’s address, I’d like to work the problem as it occurred in the media, which is to say, backward – from the lack of response in the press, to the response in the room and then focus on the moment of decision (or judgment) in the room. Since the press’ response was initially silence, I shall move through three forms of silence: silencing, judgment and thought.



When the mainstream press covered the event, it omitted or included only scant mention of Colbert’s address. For many of those in the blogosphere and on the left (often conflated as necessarily the same thing), this omission was a travesty of the highest order. For the bloggers, the press corps’ silence was an attempt to suppress the message, an act of silencing that is itself a political act. In these critics’ opinion, Colbert had done something extraordinary: he spoke truth to power (Chonin; Froomkin “Why so”; Grieve “Why Colbert”;K.L.; Scherer; Walsh). Further, most believed he had attacked the (current) press corps for their (past) complacency (Carlin; N. Cohen; Collins; Froom kin “Why so”;K.L.; Scherer). Very few recognized the positive message about “good” reporting being done at present. Thus, most critics read the content of Colbert’s speech as having only one possible meaning; as an overt negation of a happy vision of an effective President and press corps. The internet critics believe the silencing reaction of the press enforces just such a determined political interpretation.

This interpretation hinges on a distinction between silence and laughter. Colbert’s address was purportedly entertainment, and as a form of entertainment, humor is judged as successful by audience response (i.e. laughter). Laughter is thus the preferred response to humor, and, some would argue, the only viable goal of the humorist (Borns; Gilbert; Limon; Nachman; Stebbins). If laughter – even fake laughs or guffaws – were the response in the room, then perhaps no one would have noticed anything out of the ordinary (i.e. newsworthy). [9] We, as a secondary audience, may have remained unsure if Colbert’s act were political, as it seemed to produce no consequences other than those traditionally expected of humor. In this rubric, t he silence of the mainstream press indicates a decision that the humorist’ s material is consequential and therefore disqualifies that material (for the President and press) as a source of humor. The logic then extends thusly: Colbert’s speech chastised the president and the press corps, therefore it was political; because it was political it was newsworthy. The fact that the news organizations didn’t report it displayed the extent to which they are tied to the president and unable to admit their past mistakes (Collins; Froomkin “The Colbert” & “Why so”; K.L.; Walsh). Based on this reading, internet bloggers created a grassroots buzz that lambasted the press for trying to sweep this incident under the rug. Sites such as posted web-articles reading the content and context of the routine and forcing media acknowledgment.

Two acts of possible détournement thus emerge. On the one hand, while Scherer reads Colbert’s act as détournement due to the context in which he spoke, this can only be true if his intention was disruption, co-optation and pranking, and Colbert has never expressed such. In fact, Colbert’s subsequent silence on the issue presents his statements as more ironical, more enigmatic, than ever before. Further, if Colbert’s content is read as a traditional parody or satire that negates the dominant rhetoric, it does not meet Debord’s conditions for détournement. As Christine Harold explains, the Situationists reject parody as a rhetorical strategy because its ironic structure simply effects a negation that “maintain[s], rather than unsettles, audiences’ purchase on the truth” (192). But again, these critics rely on a definition of parody and irony that maint ains the intentions and investments of the author as a negation of the original text. Thus they conclude that, while parody may serve as a repurposing of the spectacle, it still relies on the spectacle to further a message and thus does nothing to destroy the spectacle form itself. However, if we reject such an over-determined definition of irony and parody both as goal and effect – reject the model of litige so represented – we may get a better picture of how irony and parody work.

On the other hand, the internet buzz can certainly be classed as détournement. Those who wrote in response co-opted the incident, judged its meaning and thereby invested it with political value in order to disrupt the easy, unproblematic reception of the political spectacle as repackaged (sans Colbert) by the mainstream press. However, this co-optation is also dependent on an over-determined reading of Colbert’s address, on a pre-set, intended meaning of his parody and satire that Colbert himself has neither confirmed nor denied (not that it should matter). If we accept this reading, the efficacy of Colbert’s address rests on an ability to produce outrage (the opposite of laughter), and thus not on humorous irony, a distinction that reinforces the perception that humor as such can have no political effects. The distinction here is based on a Freudian notion that laughter is unconscious and therefore free from thought; that laughter represents th e eruption of the id despite the controlling taboos of the conscious, whereas outrage displays that conscious thought and therefore judgment has prevailed. Laughter in this economy trivializes, whereas outrage displays political investments.

While this response recognizes Colbert’s speech as political, the act of silencing this outrage engendered is perhaps the least desirable result for the humorist as it rules out ironic humor as an exercise of progressive agency, instead relegating it to the polarizing, over-determined realm of ridicule. Such texts polarize and divide; they determine that a significant part of the audience will not find them funny and the others will laugh at those maligned. [10] Therefore, while laughter is not a judgment of the political, outrage seems to defy the material’s definition as humor. Luckily, silences, like sources of humor and types of laughter, are manifold. Silence need not mark outrage. Instead it may represent a moment wherein the humorous frame is shared, yet laughter is curtailed for one reason or another. In this case, the mainstream press claims their act of silencing is a result of a (if only slightly) different type of silence, a silence that marks a judgment that humor has failed as such because of its form.

Silent Judgment

When the members of the press corps respond to the criticism by their colleagues on the internet, they go back to the initial response in the room – that Colbert’s speech wasn’t newsworthy because it wasn’t funny (Argetsinger & Roberts; Collins; de Moraes; Scarborough, Matthews and Carlson; Steinberg). Yet to respond to their critics, the mainstream press must first counter the assertion that they were upset – decorum and social standards dictate they must show they can take a joke. Only then can they assert other motives for their silence. To this end, they attempt to cast their silencing response as a judgment about form rather than content. However, in the privileging of form over content as criteria for evaluating humor, we might also mark a strategic attempt to define what is newsworthy; rath er, it points out a distinction between two models of newsworthiness: citizenship and consumerism. By what standard should Colbert be judged, on his political relevance or artistic merit? Such competing models of newsworthiness have repercussions for what counts as political spectacle.

In order to deny Colbert’s routine political relevance, the press must first show that they can “take a joke” and not take it personally. This is the basis of the bloggers entire critique of the act of silencing: if the press took it personally then the content must be judged political. In answer, the mainstream press assert that they and the President weren’t offended by his routine: “I don’t think [Colbert] really crossed the line. I just think he wasn’t terribly funny” (Dana Milibank qtd. in Grieve “Stephen Colbert”); “to say that the crowd was offended by him, I don’t think so” (Argetsinger qtd. in Froomkin, “Why so”). Some even claimed boredom: “it was hard to tell if the president was annoyed or simply bored… Midway through, I found my attention wandering too” (Collins); &l dquo;Bush wasn’t laughing at the routine because he had tapped Colbert’s home and he’d already heard it before” (Scarborough et al.). Such comments are perhaps best summed up by Mary Matalin who, in an interview with New York Times writer Jacques Steinberg, said: “Because he is who he is, and everyone likes him, I think this room thought he was going to be more sophisticated and creative.” However, this reaction to Colbert mirrors the critique that instigates it in that it marks the stakes of the discussion: if the press’ silence is indicative that they were offended by the message, then the content of the message is determined and (deeply) political.

The counter-logic thus extends: the press corps were not moved to laugh with (or at) Colbert, therefore his humor was not successful as such and therefore it was not worthy of reporting. Yet by countering the bloggers’ arguments, the mainstream press also admits to its relevance, further enforcing a distinction between the serious and the humorous that would relegate humorous irony to apolitical status. Yet if the press and President’s silence indicates a judgment about form, then the speech and the silence itself have no political value. The press thus needs to build such an argument.

When pressured, the press didn’t make claims that comedy cannot be judged after the fact – that the lack of laughter in the room was sufficient critique. Instead they ran very elaborate arguments to explain why it wasn’t funny, and this is blamed not on content, but on form. Scott Collins of the Los Angeles Times attacked the routine’s construction as “a hodgepodge of hit or miss gags” that “could’ve used some judicious editing.” In The New York Times, political analyst Mary Matalin disparaged the content as a “predictable, Bush-bashing kind of humor” (qtd. in Steinberg). MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann objected to its tone (qtd. in Grieve “Lou Dobbs”). Analyst Ana Marie Cox described it as a problem of persona, specifically “false immodesty” when “false modesty” is the norm (Scarborough et al.). The New York Observer’s Chris Lehman described Colbert’s fault as an inability to break character (qtd. in Walsh). Also, The Washington Post’s Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts took issue with Colbert’s choice of targets or butts: “Colbert’s cutting satire fell flat because he ignored the cardinal rule of Washington humor: Make fun of yourself, not the other guy” (qtd. in Grieve “Stephen Colbert”). The New York Times’ Elizabeth Bumiller and The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen described the incident as a violation of decorum or expectations (qtd. in Grieve “Colbert”). [11]

Each of these justifications for not reporting on Colbert shifts the topic of the conversation away from the question of political merit (and therefore newsworthiness) to the question of artistic merit, thus occluding the potential for the artistic to be political. As Tim Grieve points out, this is a non-sequitur (“Stephen Colbert”). When they do discuss the left’s insistence on politics, Ana Marie Cox and Noam Scheiber describe it as a “Stalinist aesthetic” – a privileging of political content over artistic merit, further reinforcing a split between art and politics (qtd. in Grieve “Stephen Colbert”). Thus, the general message is that those on the left who would privilege the politics of humor aren’t looking at humor as such, but as a tool of propaganda, whereas art should not be judged by these standards (i.e. on content).

Yet, taken overall, this is a battle over what rightfully belongs in the spectacle and what can be excluded. In this rendition, President Bush and the press corps’ silence may have been a lack of laughter, yet it is not quite outrage. In contrast to those in the blogosphere who argue that the silent/silencing reception marks the content as political (the arguing of which reifies it as political) and thereby lobby for its inclusion in the spectacle, the press argues that their silence rhetorically constitutes the message as neither political nor humorous. Because they weren’t offended, it wasn’t political; because they didn’t laugh, it wasn’t humor. Therefore the omission of his routine from the political spectacle is justified. The larger debate reinforces humor’s polyvalent (but not polysemic) qualities. Neither side effectively argues that this humorous text has multiple possible interpretations, yet from the conversation we can note that one c an apply differing values to the texts to derive (or dismiss) political effects. [12]

Perhaps this silence is different from what I’ve called silencing in that it evades the funny/political divide. By failing to laugh (silence), one can declare that the message is not funny and not political, or that the message is not funny but deeply political, or that it may be funny but it is also deeply political. Yet, this falls prey to the same problems we may note of laughter: ultimately, as an ephemeral lack of response, silence tells us very little – we can never know which. [13] However, because of their inability to find humor, the press corps walks away; they conclude that Colbert’s performance is not newsworthy. The disinterested (if not disapproving) silence that follows his humor is carried into a silence that refuses to perpetuate it – silencing. But there is another silence present in many instances of political ironic humor, one that, because of the ephemeral nature of audience response, must be a rrived at theoretically: the silence before the decision to laugh (or not).

Silent Thought

As discussed thus far, we have several models of détournement, none of which are entirely satisfying. First, if Colbert’s speech in context counts as an act of détournement, it is so by virtue of being, not a humorous parody or satire, but a determined attempt to persuade – it was calculated to offend and outrage the immediate audience, to co-opt the event in order to speak truth to power. Despite this being the popular opinion of internet writers, this just doesn’t seem to be the most likely case, and it is not the most desirable outcome for either the humorist or we spectators. Some may argue that the value of Colbert’s speech was as a conversation starter – that ironic humor doesn’t “do” political work. In this view the activism, the détournement, was enacted by the bloggers in response to the pre-determined, innate meaning of the text. However, while the conversation between main stream media news and online news is a great moment in American politics, we should not allow it to eclipse the value of Colbert’s routine. The routine itself provoked thought, and that, perhaps, is the best that humorous irony can do politically.

The key here is that the humorist who employs irony is not the same as the bona fide politician. Christine Harold notes that a better model for such speakers might be the prankster, a model she derives from Nietzsche’s comedian. Such a figure tries out different tactics to jam or “prank” the system, to turn the spectacle back on itself and encourage the audience to act politically – this, she claims, is détournement. We should note that pranksters and comedians do not rely on enduring logics that inhere between pre-existing groups, or litige, but on interaction and friction among ad hoc and ephemeral individuals and groups, in short on phronesis, on prudential judgment. Jean François Lyotard calls such people (both agents and audiences alike) pagans (“Lessons”).

If we abandon the focus on intention and embrace the humorist as a pagan, as a trickster whose goal is humor, then we may read the responses of both the mainstream press and the internet critics as competing rhetorics, none having a complete purchase on truth – despite some agreement between them. In this understanding, the ironic nature of Colbert’s address represents an antecedent gap, a problem or as I (following from Lyotard) would cast it, a différend, that makes such rhetorics necessary (The Différend). The recognition of such gaps is the goal of a critical rhetoric (Biesecker). Kendall R. Phillips characterizes these gaps as “spaces of invention; spaces within which the possibility of new actions (or utterances or selves) can be imagined” (332). [14] It is in the moment before mea ning is determined, when we are still producing and trying out new discourses, that change and transformation of the rules of the game itself is possible, but only if we subject “old and new discourses to a reflective/inventional pause” (Phillips 339).

While it may be true that, as Joanne Gilbert notes, “The extent to which we consciously choose to laugh or refrain from laughing may be the extent to which humor actually affects social reality” (164), we know from those following Althusser that ideological moves precede structural moves; they pave the way for concrete changes. This should not, as traditional rhetoricians tend to do, relegate ironic humor to sideline status – in Augusto Boal’s conception a “dress rehearsal for the revolution,” the real enactment of which will occur later in some other sphere (122). The moment of deciphering humorous irony is the political moment.

Ultimately, if it does not produce a favorable reaction (be it a wry smile, an appreciative groan, or a knowing chuckle), it may not qualify as humor. However, if it produces instant laughter, instant adherence, is it really doing anything political, is it really provoking thought? It is when the meaning is in doubt that thought must follow. Thought only occurs in the moments before a decision (judgment) is reached, in the moment of struggle over a rupture. In this space, we can do more than fall back on simple convention as criterion; that is, we can do better than simply reacting – a simple return to ‘what we do’ that reflects the consensus of the status quo (although we frequently do this). Instead, we might reply, make a new move in the game that results in a change in the rules, or a new game. In this conception, spaces of invention and différends both preserve “the possibility for the unsayable to be able to find its w ay into words” (Charland and Sloop 293). Thus invention is a displacement and problematization that exists “at a point between the present and the possible” (Phillips 338) and is the goal of détournement. As an ironic humorous text, Colbert’s speech provides a key example of such a space.

The idea of criticism is thus not to close discourse through solutions – the resistant acts that drew our attention, such as the battle over Colbert’s speech, do that – but to call attention to and initiate spaces in which new discourse may be produced, in short to highlight dissent, freedom and thought, to perpetuate the conversation and to provoke or “flush out thought” (Foucault). It is in this vein that I have tried to problematize an easy notion of humorous irony through examination of the silencing of Stephen Colbert. It is in the temporal, discursive space of the silence that precedes a laugh, I argue, that ironic humor the most potential as détournement.

If we embrace a pagan view of rhetoric, we may find a wellspring of hope because, as we might note from the metaphor, rather than a marginal space at the edges of civilization, the pagus, or the realm in which pagans act, is everyplace save those isolated oases that are polis, or the realm in which litige holds sway; the pagus is the predominant space (Lyotard, “Lessons”). Pagan rhetorics abound. For instance, in our case example there are multiple gaps: Colbert’s parodic persona is one, the humorous irony of his speech is another, but both the press’ silence and acts of silencing also represent enigmas that call for discursive closure. Nevertheless, the first two texts have a distinct advantage: they evoke pleasure.

Final thoughts: Silent jouissance

From a pagan perspective, when faced with a (purportedly) humorous situation with political import, it becomes important to deal with silence. A pagan perspective helps us to understand the humorist as a political actor and rethink humor more broadly in political terms. In this view, the more ambiguous the act, the more productive it is for enactments of audience agency, for détournement.

Jeffrey Jones notes that the value of humorous political talk shows like Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher may lie in their “positive negativity”. Even though such shows serve as negations of partisan politics, they invite viewers to engage in political discussion. As I have displayed, the negativity of ironic humor must be inferred, but the positive value is also always a potential conclusion. Further, due to the affective quality Jones (following from Lawrence Grossberg) attributes to humorous texts, we may be invited to re-think. While the old adage “if you have to explain it, it’s not funny” may be true, the solo examination of why it’s funny to me is productive, and does nothing to diminish my delight in the text, especially if I can find multiple loci of the humor. The best jokes can bear such scrutiny and hold up remarkably well.

Further, the discussion of Colbert brings up another potential of différends: that in our mediated age, the message is not confined to its expression in the immediate spectacle. In its mediated form humor is also radically temporal, reemerging and changing with each new context. Thus, humor can be re-judged. The humorous routine is paradoxical, contradictory; it invites not simply judgment, but re-judgment as it can never, ultimately, be decided. This is the space in which political work and joke work collide to provoke thought. Thus, through the possibility of re-judgment we multiply the silences wherein we exercise our political agency, the space in which invention occurs, the instances of thought. And we, along with Colbert, can take some comfort in that.


[1] For legal reasons, it was then moved to, after C- SPAN sent a cease and desist letter to YouTube. C- SPAN can be credited with looking out for its economic investment in the footage, while not engaging in censorship, as the footage has remained available.

[2] The distinctions among irony, parody and satire, especially regarding which is primary and which is secondary, need not concern us here. Let us state for simplicity’s sake that irony, parody and satire include two competing texts, from which the audience must infer a meaning. Satire (when it is ironic and not simply sarcastic) seems to refer to an overt form of irony that is read as social criticism. Parody involves a re-presentation of the original text in an alternate form. For irony, satire and sarcasm, I’m working primarily from Muecke and Booth; for parody I rely on Morson and Rose.

[3] For instance, using Wayne Booth’s model of irony to examine satire, Lisa Gring-Pemble and Martha Solomon Watson reject humorous satire as an effective rhetorical strategy because its ironic character allows the audience to choose which part of the message they accept and separately choose which part amuses them: “the audience can laugh at the humorous elements in the ironic discourse but reject the disparagement that is its goal” (138).

[4] I should note that some in the press took the photo-op jab to include the press, since the photos are staged for the press, who are once again cast as Bush’s lapdogs. But again, this is the press corps of yesterday; Hobbes’ logic of an ability to laugh at “oneself formerly” should still provide an opportunity for laughter.

[5] For more on discordant narrators, see Cohn.

[6] Grieve notes:

In the video, Colbert fantasized that he was the new White House press secretary, forced again and again to confront the question of why the administration invaded Iraq…. There's a moment where Colbert mashes together tapes of old press briefings to make it sound like all of the White House reporters are asking questions at once – as if the press corps is rising up, as if the administration is being called to answer for all that it has done. (“Why Colbert”)

Neva Chonin later concurred that the video represented a hopeful message: “it was a beautiful illusion that will never happen, but it should.”

[7] For more on unreliable narrators, see Abbott.

[8] As Sloop and Ono note, “obligation to judge happens, judgment happens” (54).

[9] Many theorists differentiate between real laughter and “fake laughter” or “nervous laughter” (Barreca; Gilbert; Horowitz; Limon; Merrill). The latter terms designate laughter that is “usually done to placate someone in power or show that you get a joke (when, in fact, you might not enjoy or even understand it)” (Horowitz 11). Additionally, Joanne Gilbert believes that groups who perceive themselves to be in-power, such as white, heterosexual males, are able to laugh appreciatively at jokes at their expense, a condition she calls the “male guffaw” (156). Yet, the guffaw can be extended beyond men to any group with claims to domination.

[10] Some in the mainstream media make the argument that Colbert’s speech isn’t deeply political for those who laughed at it. Mary Matalin’s comment about the predictability of the routine is a case in point: if you found it funny, you must already agree with Colbert’s points, thus he’s not doing anything new or sophisticated. This rhetoric, if elevated to a logic, would have significant implications for a humor that would act politically: political humor in this model has a pre-set meaning and thus is always divisive; it always involves a split delimited by laughter and outrage. For part of the audience it will not be funny and for others it will not change attitudes (and perhaps for some it will accomplish neither). Many of the bloggers mention that the problem Colbert addresses is tragic, not comic; thus they don’t find it funny either – they also fail to laugh. However, this only further entrenches the distinction, entrenches silence as a judgment of an over-determined meaning of the text. To assert this divide is to claim a particular space for political humor, but the parameters of that space place unwarranted constraints on agency.

[11] Not that there were no political links in the mainstream press. Gene Lyons of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette even went so far as to call it “lese majeste: the crime of insulting the king,” or as Frank James put it: “How do you criticize the president without disrespecting the presidency?” However, while these last two quotations paint a picture of the message as directed against Bush, and perhaps therefore political, James and Lyon avoid the argument that Colbert insulted the press.

[12] For more on polysemy, see Ceccarelli; for more on polyvalence, see Gring-Pemble & Watson.

[13] Limon and others argue that laughter exhausts itself in the moment of its expression; as the moment expires, laughter can never be reprised. Thus, despite our ability to “fake it” (Horowitz) or guffaw (Gilbert), even these performances have little efficacy when drowned in the aggregate of the group laugh.

[14] Because the resistant act produces a particular set of results, to some extent it closes off further resistance; it closes the gap that produced it in a particular manner, thus obscuring that the gap was ever there. For more on this, see Biesecker.

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