Monday, March 5, 2007

Satire 101: Con amore

Con amore--that was a watchword of a fellow I was privileged to teach rhetorical theory in the same department with, in another lifetime. Even with an interlocutor whose position you'd spend your lifetime working to refute, he insisted, the only proper way to do so is with a stance that is nevertheless charitable, respectful--not because it's ethically or tactically correct, but because by choosing the tools of rhetoric you can't do it any other way. That decision's already been made when you decided to talk to the guy and not beat him with a club.

It can be a hard thing to wrap one's head around. And, having called a couple of people a "stuffed burp," or worse, on this blog, I'm obviously in no position to propose a christlike standard of behavior for political rhetoric. And that's lucky, because that's not my point.

So let's go back to political satire for a moment. As an approach to all confrontation, even all political confrontation, con amore is a very tall order. I won't even pretend I've always cleared that bar myself, even though I honor the point.

But in satire, that attitude is not just a level you'd like to hit, it's the whole point. In a nutshell: Political attacks that portray one's opponents as monstrous may be pragmatically necessary, and they may be practically effective, but they'll never be funny. And that means they'll never have the advantages that humor offers in a fight.

I talked about this a little last month, somewhat indirectly, contemplating the arrival of the dreadful-as-we-expected "Half-Hour News Hour" on Fox News Channel. I said that the Fox satire-wannabe would never get there unless it was willing to dish it out to its own side, as well as to its opponents. And that's not because of some silly notion of "balance" or "equal time"--you kick my guy, I'll kick yours. It's because you can't do a proper satirical number on your opponent's flaws if you can't at least tacitly acknowledge your own.

It's called irony.

Stephen Colbert, a faux conservative who often honors himself on his Comedy Central show, was lauded by the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival as their "Person of the Year."

"What an honor. An honor to receive and an honor for you to give to me," Colbert said during the ceremony late Friday.

Often appearing to be a combination of Bill O'Reilly and Archie Bunker, Colbert emphasized that his television character is not him.

"He's not malicious, he's ill-informed, you know. It's just a product of his own education. And he thinks he's saying and doing the right thing, he's not actually trying to hurt anybody," said Colbert.

It's true: Colbert's on-screen character says and does appalling things, but not because he's evil or hateful (and remember, this is as close as anyone's likely to get to a direct send-up of O'Reilly himself), but simply because, as Colbert plays him, he's self-important, thoughtless, and largely unable to understand the way people see him. These aren't the characteristics of a monster; they're among the flaws that make us all recognizably human. And that's why we like the Colbert character, perhaps even in spite of ourselves.

O'Reilly, as well as Colbert's lesser targets, is thus allowed to start off with a fair amount of karmic capital even when Colbert is gleefully doing his worst to him. If you find conservative humor unfunny, ask yourself if this isn't the reason why.

(Hat tip to Crooks & Liars. And congrats to Colbert.)

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