I missed HAIL SATAN? at Sundance last winter — you can’t see ‘em all. But I’ve just spun the DVD, and man, is it something. It’s one of those documentaries that opens your eyes and changes your perspective. It’s more than entertainment, it’s enlightenment.
Hold up, there. I didn’t become a Satanist after simply watching a movie. (See the “Satanic Panic” below.) But what did happen was that my prejudices regarding The Satanic Temple — the subject of this beauty — were completely upended, redefining my inner regard of “Satanism.” Which was exactly, precisely, the point, both of the filmmakers and the Satanists.
First, let’s anchor The Satanic Temple. You may have noticed the people who have peacefully and nonviolently opposed the placement of a giant replica of the Ten Commandments on public property in the Bible Belt. Their method is by legally applying to set alongside it an equally giant statue honoring Baphomet, the man-goat, bat-wings extended, the embodiment of Satan. (And, in one storied incident, they succeeded, at least for one day.) Before I saw this movie, I assumed they were political pranksters, like the Yes Men or the Yippies. But pranks these are not. These people are dead serious in their beliefs, yet those sincerely held beliefs are not what you may think. (They might indulge themselves in a little fun sometimes; note the question mark in the film’s title.)
Now, if you are a devout who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, some of what will follow may strike you as blasphemous. Fair warning. TST, as I’m going to call the group hence, doesn’t want to injure or restrict or delimit your faith in any way. Believe whatever you like, with their compliments. They just don’t want you to impose your own particular beliefs upon the rest of the country.
You frequently run into the trope, “America is a Christian nation.” Um, no, actually it isn’t. Most of the founders had nominal religious affiliation (even George Washington, who didn’t take communion or kneel when he prayed; Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity or resurrection; and Benjamin Franklin, who rarely attended Presbyterian services because he found them dull), but many of them were “deists” rather than the type of “Christian” represented by today’s evangelicals. You will search in vain for the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord” in the Constitution or any amendment, except for the Signatory section: “…the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” Let one of the Founders explain: “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross,” wrote John Adams. “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”
Yes, but what about “one nation under God,” and “In God We Trust”? As we learn in this film, both are artifacts of the Red-Scare era. The Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the phrase “under God” until 1954. “In God We Trust” became the national motto in 1956, not 1776, and first appeared on paper money the following year. Those who say America was founded as a Christian nation have it exactly backward: the Founders wanted to escape religious persecution and establish a pluralistic republic. Furthermore, those giant Ten Commandments stone blocks that to this day adorn small towns all over the country? Most of them came not from the hand of God but from the publicists of Paramount Pictures and Cecil B. DeMille, who distributed 4,000 six-foot granite tablets to municipalities around the country to promote their 1956 blockbuster movie. Their original partners, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, kept ’em coming for years afterward.
Okay, we may not be a Christian nation, but why worship the Evil One, and doesn’t that mean dancing naked around a fire and drinking blood? No, those are the fantasies conjured by Hollywood movies and the thousands of parents who thought playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to heavy metal music drew their little darlings to Satanism during the “Satanic Panic” of the Eighties and early Nineties. It proved to be as bogus as the Salem witch hunt or Joe McCarthy’s debunked commie counts during the similar Red Scare. Those imaginary covens and spooky chants are not what TST is about, not anything of the kind.
TST members do not espouse evil. They do not endorse violence or physical harm of any kind. We see one leader of a local chapter basically get drummed out of the organization for giving a speech in which she advocates violent revolution, and there have been other internecine skirmishes off camera, but if you’re speaking for TST you toe the line. In fact, the Satanists don’t really “worship” anything. To them Satan is a mythical fallen angel who dares to question God, and if you were brought up in a religious household, you might have had some of the same questions. Satanists would put it this way. Considering Bible verse as literal truth for a moment, when the serpent persuades Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge while God prefers that she and Adam remain ignorant souls in Eden, is the snake really the bad guy? When God orders Abraham to sacrifice his own son and then relents, is that an act of charity? How about the bullying of Job? When Satan suggests to a starving Jesus that he take food and water, does that suggestion do harm? Yes, TST might be stretching points, but that is the point.
To put it clearly, these Satanists don’t even worship Satan. According to TST co-founder “Lucien Greaves” (who cheerfully admits this is not his given name), “Satanism is a non-theistic religion, meaning we don’t venerate a personal Satan or deity; we recognize it as a metaphorical, mythological construct. For us Satan is iconic of the ultimate rebel against tyranny. We also place the highest value on rational exploration and the pursuit of knowledge.” TST (based in Salem, Massachusetts, natch) is only a religion for tax purposes, just as is Scientology. Rather than dogmatic ritual, TST espouses seven tenets for interpersonal behavior that make at least as much sense to me as do the Ten Commandments.
What they object to is the rule of a theocratic society, particularly the stranglehold of the religious right. “Some people would think it ironic, but I’m probably most popular in the Bible Belt territories,” muses Greaves. “People there seem to understand our relevance more and more.” I always thought these folks were doing, you’ll pardon the expression, God’s work by acting to remove theocratic icons from public spaces using rational jujitsu: if you get yours, then we get ours. As TST well knows, most town councils would give the hook to their Commandments rather than have to stare at Baphomet every time they walk into the courthouse — but the attendant lawsuits are expensive and they move at glacial speed.
I don’t want to make this flick sound too weighty. It’s hilarious to watch down-home folks try to find legal ways to stop TST from erecting something they obviously view as a monstrosity. And one can never be entirely sure how firmly TST tongues are placed within their cheeks. But these are very smart, very devoted people who will absolutely not countenance the establishment of any official state religion. The Satanic Temple is not the ACLU. But by visually showing the general public what their religious icons look like to nontheists — kinda how the man-goat looks to them — TST is coming after the same thing.
8/13/19: Today the Church of Satan tweeted me: “That film has nothing to do with us or the religion of Satanism.” The first part is absolutely correct. Here is an amusing comparison between that group and the subjects of this film. And in the spirit of free speech, here is the Church of Satan’s official response.
Funniest book I’ve read in a long time wasn’t written by a humorist, not exactly. Most of it was written by legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. That makes it even funnier.
HOW TO BECOME A FEDERAL CRIMINAL is a guide to the craziest, most arcane federal laws that are still actually on the books. They’re either in the United States Code (“USC”) if they were statutes passed by Congress, or the Code of Federal Regulations (“CFR”) if they were rules set by executive branch departments and agencies, but they are the no-lie law and you can definitely be punished if you disobey. Author Mike Chase is a criminal defense lawyer who operates the @CrimeADay Twitter feed, and he’s never at a loss for material. This is essentially a greatest hits compilation, styled tongue-in-cheek as a handbook for potential lawbreakers.
It’s a daunting task, even though Mr. Chase limits himself to the federal code and the overwhelming majority of convictions in the U.S. are for violations of state crimes, of which we have fifty different sets. But we’re going to set those aside for now. (Although the “Assimilative Crimes Act” allows the government to adopt any state crime from the state where fed property is located and deem it federal.) The USC/CFR code alone has grown so vast that nobody really knows its scope: “Lawyers from the Department of Justice once tried to count all the federal crimes on the books and gave up. Since then, others have tried and failed.”
Mr. Chase begins with everybody’s favorite federal crime, the one I’ll bet you’ve considered committing at least once if you haven’t actually done so. You know, the mattress tag that says DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG UNDER PENALTY OF LAW. It’s a real law, and breaking it is punishable by fines and up to a year in prison. But it wasn’t intended for you: in fact, “ultimate consumers” like you are exempt. It’s intended instead to punish unscrupulous mattress dealers. Even the most risible laws on the books are there for some reason: as Mr. Chase writes, “we get many of our laws from people doing dumb, gross, and dangerous things.” And, “Sadly, time has shown that the crimes people will commit in the national parks are as limitless as human stupidity itself. Park visitors have been arrested for taunting bison, taking selfies with bears, and urinating into Old Faithful.”
The U.S. Code splits some interesting hairs. Although it is of course a federal crime to deface paper money, “purely recreational coin mutilation” is fine. So flatten a penny on the railroad tracks or in a penny press machine to your heart’s content; that’s for small-timers, chumps and fancy-pantses. This book is for people who affirmatively want to become actual federal criminals.
The breadth of the long arm of the law is, well, breathtaking. Here are a few examples, out of context (where they are funniest). You may not use a falconry bird in a movie that isn’t about falconry (film crews actually use lookalike birds or CGI to avoid breaking this law). In 1979 McDonalds discontinued its popular miniature coffee-stirring spoon to avoid running afoul of 21 U.S.C. § 863(a)(2), which prohibits mailing “drug paraphernalia,” after an anti-drug crusader testified to Congress that the “McSpoon” would be just jake for snorting cocaine. If you sell shingle-packed bacon, you’re a criminal if customers can’t see at least 70% of a “representative slice” through the clear plastic on the package. You may not pledge or accept stolen explosives as collateral for a loan. (Stolen explosives, mind.) There are only three forms of pasta with federally mandated shapes and dimensions, “macaroni,” “spaghetti,” and “vermicelli”; ziti and rotini are in the ristorante equivalent of Sergio Leone’s Wild West. You may not hold a child over a moat at the National Zoo. (Remember: dumb, gross and dangerous.) “Knowingly and willingly” moving a table on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) ground can make you a con. Piracy laws dating from the 18th century are still valid, even on the Great Lakes.
Stupid laws can definitely wear thin quickly beyond one-a-day Twitter length, but two features save this book from drudgery. First is the author’s droll sense of humor. His offhand remarks liven up the most idiotic of statutes. Reporting that swine sexual odor, or “boar taint,” is prohibited, Mr. Chase notes, “Aside from being a great metal band name, boar taint is said to smell like a mix of sweat, urine, and feces. Again, not unlike a metal band.” You may not take a cat on a raft trip in the Grand Canyon, causing him to observe, “The sad part about this rule is that it bars cats from doing the thing they are known to love most: white-water rafting.”
The second is a series of deadpan illustrations, drawn by the author himself, that sell the satirical perspective of a how-to book. With the innocence of a Fifties educational film, they underline the mundanity of the United States Code and make you struggle to imagine what godforsaken real-life behavior it took to get these things codified into law.
Mr. Chase winds up by swerving into bizarre but true corners of the U.S.C., by naming actual, genuine lawsuits that have been brought in federal court: United States v. Twenty-Five Packages of Panama Hats, United States v. Seventy-Five Boxes of Alleged Pepper, United States v. Thirty-Dozen Packages of Roach Food, and my personal favorite, United States v. 11 1/4 Dozen Packages of Article Labeled in Part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo Fly Powders for Drunkenness. He also details how cigarette lighter manufacturers are required by law to test the safety of their lighters on at least one hundred children between 3 1/2 and 4 1/4 years of age by deliberately letting the toddlers play with them.
But the pièce de résistance comes in 1971, when the USDA Forest Service introduces a cartoon character named Woodsy Owl. You may remember his slogan: “g-ve a h—t, d-n’t po—ute.” I didn’t print that because it’s against the law to use this slogan for profit without the prior approval of the Secretary of Agriculture, and no blog post (there are ads below) is worth facing federal hard time, Jack. The hilariously banal testimony before both houses of Congress, with Mr. Chase carefully redacting the protected phrase, is laugh-out-loud funny. Leave it to Rep. Gene Snyder (R-KY) to sum it up: “Angela Davis is loose. The Chicago Seven are loose. Ellsberg is loose after giving away the secrets of the country and so on. Now we want to send somebody to jail for saying, ‘G—- a h—-, d—- poll—-.’”
Sometimes stuff like this can make you irritated. But Mr. Chase is such a genial host that ineptitude is reduced to entertainment. Don’t take the government so seriously, he says. That’s not a bad message for these times.
I think I know the secret identities of the (probably only) four original Residents. In fact, I’m so confident that I’ll name them now: Jay Clem, Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, and John Kennedy. Four monikers you and I have never heard of. So who cares? Well, that’s kind of the whole point.
That reveal is germane because when these (probably all) boys set out from Shreveport, Louisiana (one Resident may be from Texas) for the West Coast, to live the bohemian life among like minds that didn’t much exist in the Bayou State, they settled almost immediately on the Theory Of Obscurity. Only the art matters. Only the work. The cult of celebrity demeans and dilutes the end product by its very nature. Therefore we will forever remain anonymous, and go to great lengths to preserve that state. It’s as if Clark Kent were in reality a black hole: there they are, up there live on stage, but they steadfastly decline to acknowledge identity, and that’s why they always wear disguises in public. Sia is working the same street nowadays, but The Residents paved it a very long time ago. Their road work began about 1970.
Devotees believe the soon-to-be Residents came from the visual arts, oriented toward images intended for the optic nerve. (More on eyeballs later.) Arriving in a Bay Area that had already upchucked the excesses of the Summer of Love, they noticed that popular music was reorienting itself from the anything-goes era of Hendrix and Zappa toward a Laurel Canyon-lite soft sound. Icky! They found some instruments and a place to record them and produced avant-garde (actually more like en garde!) tracks that deconstructed the barriers between the givers and receivers of music, as the Fugs had done in New York years earlier. Legend has it that a major label declining their anonymously submitted demo tape sent it back addressed to “Residents.” Aha. A band name!
The original Residents — I say that because there’s no telling just how many different people of either gender have performed or created with or as The Residents over the years — were conceptual artists; they have never professed to be accomplished musicians. Heavily influenced by such mavericks as Captain Beefheart and the Sun Ra Arkestra, they produced freewheeling audio tracks that were energetic, dissonant, thought-provoking, offputting, funny, freaky, fascinating, difficult, and utterly unique in American culture. But although they have released dozens of albums and performed these compositions in live shows, it’s not quite accurate to think of The Residents as a “band.” Again, they are primarily visual artists, and their media are multi.
They were true pioneers of music video (some of their work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where The Residents have been represented in five exhibitions) and digital media (they did two acclaimed discs for Voyager back when CD-ROM was the Hot New Thing). Yet if you leaf through The Residents’ audio catalog, you will nevertheless find among the outre screeching some interesting slices of Americana: covers of songs by Elvis, Hank Williams (they perform “Kaw-Liga” under a sample of the opening beats from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”), even John Philip Sousa. And rising from the gleeful cacophony, their remarkable 2002 album DEMONS DANCE ALONE is one of the most sensitive reactions to 9/11 that I’ve ever heard. So their sonic creations are not without meaning. In fact, an indicator I once employed to quickly evaluate the savvy of any newly visited record store, back when there was such a thing, was to head straight to the Rs. (The Virgin Megastore that opened in the Times Square building which also housed my employer, Bantam Books, was outstanding in this regard.)
But The Residents are, above all, provocateurs. Their most famous stage costume features formal top hat and tails, white tie, elegant cane — and a giant veined eyeball mask covering each Resident’s head. They want you to stare back at them just as hard.
The most amazing thing about The Residents is that, without the slightest care for fashion, they have been making a living producing art on their terms for almost fifty years now. How long can one swim upstream? Yet here they still are.
But we may have arrived at an inflection point. Sadly, last November, Hardy Fox, longtime president of The Residents’ business entity, the Cryptic Corporation, passed away at 73. The other three gentlemen named above have also been Cryptic officers. You can see them all interviewed in the wonderful Residents documentary THEORY OF OBSCURITY. They “work for” The Residents, to whom they always refer in the third person. Who knows who’s up on stage these days, but it’s probably not septuagenarians. And who knows how the collective’s creative output is derived? Maybe Hardy’s death will finally break up the group, or maybe obscurity theory will allow it to continue as long as it wants. I so admire how these stalwarts have carved themselves a place in the culture despite all odds, all evens, despite everything. I’d tip my hat, but the eyeballs below it are far too small.
P.S. To hear a curated sample of The Residents’ music, check out the 2017 compilation 80 ACHING ORPHANS, with extensive liner notes by Homer Flynn. To see their amazing and sometimes disturbing music videos, get ahold of the compilation DVD, ICKY FLIX.
Are you as nostalgic for a competent, compassionate executive branch as I am? Do you wake up every day with the same low-grade anxiety and check the “breaking” (sic) news with horror-movie dread? Do you hope today’s presidential antic or TWITTER TANTRUM! will just be idiotic as usual rather than potentially fraught with real harm? Would you prefer your head of state to care about others and speak in complete English sentences? Then I have a book for you. It’s only a short one, but take it from me, for a couple of hours it’ll make you feel better.
HOPE NEVER DIES is a mystery novel by Andrew Shaffer. This is Mr. Shaffer’s very first mystery novel. That’s because he’s actually a humorist who specializes in literary and pop culture parodies. I’m not actually a diehard mystery fan either. The reason I picked this one up is that the private investigators who set out to solve a murder are Joe Biden and Barack Obama.
Biden, hilariously, is the narrator and centerpiece. A beloved conductor on the Acela Express has been struck and killed by a train, and “Amtrak Joe” takes it personally. He’s been irritated that “44” has been enjoying all these glamorous vacations since leaving the White House — windsurfing, kayaking, hanging with Richard Branson and Bradley Cooper — without even calling. So imagine his surprise when Obama shows up in a black Cadillac Escalade with a Secret Service agent in tow.
Mr. Shaffer juggles that funny Internet meme of Biden as a Ray-Banned muscle-car badass with the mundane reality of a seventyish suburban guy whose physical best days are behind him. Before long, Biden and Obama ditch the Escalade for Joe’s own ride, a “2017 neon-green Dodge Challenger T/A., 3.6-liter Pentastar VVT V6 engine with an 8-speed Torque-Flite automatic transmission.” Biden’s hardboiled monologue is priceless: a grizzled cop is “as tough as a two-dollar steak,” a rural lake is “as calm as a soul at rest.” Yet his prim Irish character shines through: where you might say “No shit, Sherlock,” Joe says “No crap, Matlock.” Obama is as cool as ever (if prone to overthink and overexplain), but Biden’s body is notably slowing him down. Both guys are terrified of their wives.
We spend much of the story on the mean streets of Wilmington, Delaware. Most of the typical detective-story ticks are laid before us, but personalized to the two politicians: “Barack placed one of his oversized ears on the door. Political cartoonists had loved to mock Barack’s elephant ears. If only they could see him now, using them for their God-intended purpose.” Obama’s own foibles are comedy grist: when he’s forced into a McDonalds, the only thing on the menu he can stand to eat are the apple slices. In a gas station, Biden chats up the counter girl:
“Hot one out,” I announced, tossing a five spot on the counter. Barack rolled his eyes—he wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. However, I was a Delawarean. And Delawareans make small talk. The girl looked out the window. “Global warming,” she said with a shrug. “Actually, it’s more of a gradual process than that,” Barack said, suddenly interested in our conversation. “That’s why we prefer the term ‘climate change.’ What you’ll see is a degree or two warming over the next fifty years, which will be enough to cause the sea levels to rise ten feet. When that happens—”
Again, I’m not a particular genre fan, so I found the first part of Act III a little flabby during a long passage in which the plot thickens around Biden with Obama offstage; aficionados will probably see nothing wrong at all. But the rest of the book is a wistful delight. The wistfulness comes from Mr. Shaffer’s ability to remind us why we respected the heart and dignity these men represented while making fun of them at the same time. That’s the soul of “An Obama Biden Mystery.” Late in the story, Joe warns Barack against stepping on the third rail in the Wilmington yard. “‘Guess they don’t call you Amtrak Joe for nothing.’ ‘I know some things,’ I admitted.” Oh, for leaders who know some things.
8/5/19: A sequel has dropped.
Late-night comedy loses another promising voice tomorrow night, when THE OPPOSITION W/ JORDAN KLEPPER broadcasts the last of its 129 episodes. Comedy Central has been having trouble filling the key four-times-weekly slot following THE DAILY SHOW, the one ruled for years by THE COLBERT REPORT, and now they have to try again. First Larry Wilmore — frankly, a better writer than an on-air host — tried THE NIGHTLY SHOW, at the time the most color-centric program in late night. Then star DAILY SHOW correspondent Jordan Klepper earned his turn at bat. It’s a shame they’ve pulled the plug: his show was very good.
THE OPPOSITION is a creative cousin to THE COLBERT REPORT. Stephen Colbert spent almost ten years as a character named “Stephen Colbert,” a self-important, thick-headed right-wing blowhard modeled on Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and especially the one he called “Papa Bear,” Bill O’Reilly. (The show even parodied specific O’Reilly segments, only evident to those who’d actually watched THE O’REILLY FACTOR.) To appreciate this character you had to use some ironic detachment, but it was hilarious, and Colbert surprised everybody, probably even himself, when he was able to hold on to the bit and broaden the character over a mammoth run that extended from Dubya well into Obama.
A similar character, “Jordan Klepper” — again saying basically the opposite of what the writers actually mean for you to understand — is a madman conspiracy theorist. His walls are covered with crazy-quilt lines of connecting string, there are piles and piles of binder-clipped sheets of paper scattered all over his desk. He resembles nobody more than Alex Jones, the goofy shouting nut who hosts something called INFOWARS. In fact, just as O’Reilly hipped to Colbert’s “homage” early on, somebody must have told Jones that there’s a guy on tv making fun of him, because he started fighting back on air — only, in true conspiracist style, he got it all wrong and kept calling the host “Keppler.” (THE OPPOSITION even did a segment on INFOWARS’s pathetic putdowns of “this guy Keppler” and it became a running gag.) That’s the concept, and they never drop the premise. The audience are “opposers.” Instead of “We’ll be right back,” Klepper says, “The fight continues.” During his nighty interview segment, his last question is always, “Tell me something I already know.”
Klepper is a great presenter and superb improviser, which “we already knew” from his stint on THE DAILY SHOW. On this very program, the host earned an honored place in television history with his brave MAGAMeal Challenge. But what I’ll miss the most about THE OPPOSITION is its correspondents; per the conspiracy theme, they call themselves “Citizen Journalists.” This gang, culled as usual from comedy clubs and improv stages, is the sharpest and most energized bunch since the heyday of Jon Stewart’s run.
While each Citizen Journalist helps Klepper take down imaginary threats from the Deep State, and each has posted brilliant field pieces, they’ve managed to carve out their own personalities in record time. Tim Baltz is the privileged white oaf with slicked-back hair, a wannabe Gordon Gekko. Laura Grey (Klepper’s wife) is an adorable wide-eyed ball of anger whose contradictions obstruct any feminism. Niccole Thurman is a black conspiracist who usually doesn’t see what the libtards’ problem is. Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson are flamboyantly gay men powered by their own hysteria. And Kobi Libii, my favorite of them all, has managed to find his way as a buttoned-down paranoid, inventing innumerable methods of gaming the system and presenting them with a self-satisfied kilowatt smile. These people are all aces, the best team on late-night. I hope each and every one of them gets another great gig right away.
When I read of the cancellation about a week ago (they’ve been having fun with it on the air ever since — see, it’s part of the grand conspiracy to silence them!), I admit my first thought was that the dark maddened universe inhabited by Trump’s tweets is funnier and more outlandish than anything the writers could ever dream up. We’re living in a real world that looks uncomfortably like THE OPPOSITION’s invented world, and maybe it felt too on-the-nose; after all, Alex Jones frequently sounds like a comedian, just not on purpose. Maybe the format itself was too kinetic. And maybe THE OPPOSITION was simply too hip for the room. At any rate, thanks, gang, best wishes from a fan, and let’s all make sure the fight continues.
Boy, did Michelle Wolf raise a ruckus last Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Or, more precisely, a ruckus was raised about her. Because, man, what did you expect when you hired a topical comedian? As Judd Apatow noted, “It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man.’”
Did Wolf’s set step over a line? Judge for yourself. You can read what she said here, or watch her say it here. I would recommend going directly to the source, because the set’s already being misrepresented by guess which tribe. For example, despite what you may read and hear, Wolf did not make fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s appearance. She made fun of her mendacity and enabling as White House Press Secretary. True, Ms. Sanders was sitting a few feet away, and was visibly unamused, but all this has happened before, you know.
I’m thinking back to the 2006 dinner, when Stephen Colbert “bombed” by speaking truth to power. His show was brand new at the time, and not everybody realized his right-wing blowhard character, “Stephen Colbert,” was an ironic parody of windbags like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. I was in a COLBERT REPORT audience later that summer and overheard a guy explaining to his date before the taping, “You have to read between the lines of everything he says. And a running joke is his huge ego. Everything’s all about him.” The concept was still new enough to need a rundown. Now Jordan Klepper is doing the same thing to conspiracy “theorists” like Alex Jones by playing a character and trusting you to sift out the truth.
So it’s possible that whoever booked Colbert for the WHCA dinner was unaware of the gag and took him at face value. People are not always as subtly thoughtful as you may wish them to be, and conservatives are not known for their senses of humor. To the room’s apparent surprise, Colbert cleverly blasted George W. Bush while pretending to be a fawning acolyte: “tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say I did look it up, and that’s not true. That’s cause you looked it up in a book.” On he went. Watch the set here. Bush clearly did not find it funny, much of the laughter in the room was only nervous, and the first reports were that Colbert had died with a lousy bit. But then we noticed where those first reports were coming from: Fox News and other Bush promoters. When we later got a chance to read Colbert’s set, and even see him deliver it, we realized what had happened.
The prevailing attitude at occasions like this had always been, we kid you, Mr. President, but we do it with love and we’re grateful for your service. But what Colbert was saying now — and what the President was receiving — was, Mr. President, sir, we don’t think you’re doing a very good job. That’s what made the live audience uneasy. Colbert was turning on the right-wing spit for days afterward, just as Michelle Wolf is now, but when you look back twelve years later, Colbert’s remarks were both funny and spot on. The next year, WHCA overcompensated by booking the dangerous rogue mind of Rich Little.
At least Bush’d had the guts to show up. Wolf called Trump “cowardly” for skipping the WHCA dinner for a second time (in favor of a self-aggrandizing rally in Michigan) and that’s accurate. Trump’s legendarily fragile ego cannot coexist with even a smidgen of criticism; he’s still smarting from the time Barack Obama roasted him at WHCA — with some funny stuff — just after secretly giving the order to kill Osama bin Laden. Trump even refuses to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park, I assume for two reasons. First, he’s afraid of getting booed, which would certainly happen. Second, the 60 feet from mound to plate is a lot longer when watched by a mid-five-figure crowd, bigger than any rally he’s ever headlined — and as Trump himself might put it, “people are saying that he throws like a girl.”
Speaking of girls, Michelle Wolf. I didn’t find everything she said funny, but I could also say that about Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, even Lord flippin Buckley. Any comic who’s at all edgy is taking a risk with every joke. But, especially after the Colbert incident, if you aren’t aware of a comic’s body of work before you hire her, then any blame is on you. What is fairly irritating here is the faux outrage and abject hypocrisy. Wolf was “disrespectful”? Trump is permanently dripping with louche contempt and schoolyard meanness: these juvenile nicknames, cruelly mocking a physical handicap, treating women as pieces of meat, constantly punching down at people who are (temporarily, always remember) less powerful than he. Where is his dadburn respect? Wolf was “vulgar”? Again, the pussy-grabbing shithole in the Head Shed is Numero Uno among that rapacious gang of bottom-feeders who are his colleagues. When Trump does his best every day to delegitimize the very notion of White House correspondents, maybe we’re talking about a different kind of relationship, and perhaps some more acerbic words are in order. Even from a frickin comedian.
There was something else unexpected about Wolf’s performance, probably what brought some caustic comments even from representatives of non-fake media like the New York Times and NBC. Michelle Wolf took them down too. “You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. If you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any.” It’s fun and games when politicians are in the crosshairs, less so when it’s you yourself — and deep down, White House correspondents know they actually do have a lot to answer for.
As Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained to those same correspondents after Trump seemed to question Rex Tillerson’s intelligence, “He made a joke. Maybe you guys should get a sense of humor and try it sometime, but he simply made a joke.” Maybe everybody should try it sometime.