As I said, (see preceding paragraph) I thought it was brilliant, but like all smart pieces of criticism that make a brother think, I did not agree with all of it. I sharply disagree with this part. Long quote follows, but worth the read:
A high-water mark of contemporary satire is generally acknowledged to be Stephen Colbert’s 2006 performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. There, with President Bush in the audience, Colbert delivered a masterfully ironic faux-conservative tirade in his sublimely boorish O’Reilly persona, advising the president to ignore America’s clear disapproval of him. “We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Whether the unnerved audience in the room laughed or sat aghast as Colbert built momentum has been a subject of some debate, but either way, it was a great moment of awkwardly pointed satire. Colbert’s performance made people uncomfortable because he was saying all this directly to Bush’s face—what more dramatic instance could there be of a comedian speaking truth to power?
But then . . . what? After all, Colbert wasn’t at the dinner to topple the administration. He was there to entertain it. Bush watched him, chuckled politely, and, somehow resisting the devastating power of Colbert’s monologue, managed not to resign on the spot. As for Colbert, he returned to work, unharmed, by all accounts, by the NSA...
That Colbert said what needed to be said, and Bush admitted what needed to be admitted, did nothing to derail the next four disastrous years of the official U.S. occupation of Iraq. Instead, the expectant moments merely dissipated, as intended, into memorable entertainment. Colbert made that point with unmistakable clarity in 2014 during the farewell edition of The Colbert Report. For his final show, he filled his soundstage with celebrities and political figures, including George Lucas, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Toby Keith, and Henry Kissinger. As a group they sang “We’ll Meet Again,” the World War II–era song used to ironic effect in the closing credits of Dr. Strangelove as the film’s superpowers enter a nuclear holocaust. But the spectacle lacked anything like Kubrick and Southern’s bite. By appearing on stage with icons of the far right and left, Colbert let his audience know that he never really meant it. His mugging faux-O’Reilly persona turned out to be shtick wrapped inside more shtick. The star-studded ensemble also made it quite clear that CBS hasn’t hired a lefty demagogue, as right-wing detractors had loudly insisted when the news broke that the Comedy Central host was ascending to the Letterman chair. In the new Colbert era, Dr. Kissinger, a cold warrior only one small step removed from Peter Sellers’s Strangelove, will occupy the same celebrity cultural real estate as George Lucas.
In other words, it was always just a joke. Eight years after publicly eviscerating President Bush and calling out the biggest foreign-policy blunder in a generation, Colbert backed away from any truly subversive satirical intent. And President Bush? He was in the news late last year, too, to unapologetically reaffirm his support for perhaps the ugliest aspect of his administration—his torture policy. He even refused the usual presidential luxury of deniability and enthusiastically re-endorsed the policy and those who executed it. In 2014 it was Colbert who was distancing himself from his legacy, not Bush.
So what, exactly, is the problem with Colbert going back to being an entertainer? I'm not chucking Schwartz's whole argument there. For example, I also don't really like the borderline sycophantic kidding around with the powerful, especially people like Kissinger. But on the other hand I don't think that "speaking truth to power" is what comedy is exclusively for or reliably good at. Comedy, and art in general, is entertainment. (Entertainment is a dirty word for many serious people; for example, it's essentially the invincible villain in Infinite Jest. I think it's a real problem in modern art that so many smart people even think that, but that's an essay for another time.) Satire is often so self-congratulatory and smug that its advocates and practitioners seem to forget that as a tool it is just about useless. Which is fine! Efficacy is not the point. As Oscar Wilde said, in reaction to people who wanted to make art either a clearly effective utilitarian device or an agent of social change, "All art is quite useless."
I'm wary of any criticism that says what an art form is supposed to do, especially when the answer is promoting the good of society and wielding the blade of art against the armor of power. It reminds me too much of Socialist Realism. That's what the Soviet Union not only advocated but enforced throughout Russia and its satellite states. All art had to be in service of the proletarian and for the improvement of society. The results were a disaster, a bunch of preachy and sentimental propaganda. Capitalist versions of that are usually no better, and inevitably wind up seeming like a very special episode of Diff'rent Strokes, when Arnold Jackson learns that some strangers are bad. Or think of the movie Crash. Which, granted, I have not seen-- but neither did you. We skipped it once we heard it was preachy.
Nothing is less funny than a liberal comedian telling a bar full of liberals (most of whom are comedians of some sort) that Wal-Mart is bad. But when it works, satire is indeed thrilling. I'd love it if Colbert spent all his time standing next to the President inside a room with 500 Washington insiders, berating them with devastating wit. But that's a rare opportunity, one he took with everything he had when someone was fool enough to invite him. The rest of the time, he slung bits. Great, great bits.
Colbert's going to be around for a long time because he knows he is a song-and-dance man. As smart as his show was it would never be the force to change the world. Yes, I'd prefer it if Colbert did not let a guy like Kissinger hide in the cloak of entertainment, and the use of "We'll Meet Again" was a lofty miss, but in the end I can't completely agree with Schwarz. Colbert did not betray his legacy because he was not, is not, and should never be the guy who is gonna fix all this.