Comedy is an art form that suffers little from doubt as to its success or otherwise: either mirth is produced, or it is not. This of course means that a coterie of explainers and interpreters is unnecessary in the economy of comedic production, meaning in turn that we cannot take it seriously as Art.
It’s the same with love songs, sporting genius, or political nous: the effect of these is too immediate, too embodied to warrant serious regard. Oh it’s very impressive of course, but it’s not transcendent.
Anyway, art (including comedy) tends to be at its most interesting when it successfully bares its surface to its audience; when it works riskily at the borderlines of artifice; when its performance is to a certain extent the performance of its performance; when the art is somehow standing back looking at itself, and in that it is inviting its audience to do the same.
(Shane Warne was an artist of test cricket because so much of his psychological advantage derived from his ability to bring the battle to the surface, slowing it down, making it the subject of his calculated, deliberate, predatory-but-casual stride in to bowl.)
But (again it should go without saying) when it comes to artistic practice, the kind of self-consciousness I am talking about can go horribly horribly wrong. It needs to come from a very honest place; it must be sincere.
And it should generally be all but imperceptible: the last thing I want is to sound like I’m endorsing vulgar self-referentiality. I am not.
So to draw all my themes together – except for the cricket one, which we can happily leave behind – before they entirely dissipate: Stephen Colbert is a first-rate artist. This is because his comedy exists at the very edge of his performance, where it can never settle into dullness and predictability – because the relationship between Colbert-the-satirist and Colbert-the-character is constantly shifting, with each using the other, and the other’s unstable proximity, to endlessly reimagine and redefine the basic comic conceit upon which the show is built.
I could go on, but I won’t.
And all of this is merely by way of introduction to, and endorsement of, the recent “Art Edition” of the Colbert Report. What I like about this clip in particular – and this of course is what satire is for – is that through sheer piss-taking it gets absolutely to the heart of the matter.
And that’s all I wanted to say.
(But also: for pure entertainment, check out this clip, starting at 2 mins 50 secs in: Colbert’s rendering of the kind of babble-speak art criticism that endlessly proves just how many new-clothes spotters are out there keeping the emperors enthroned.
And if you want to see what it really means to speak truth to power, watch this.)