The Gross Anatomy of Colbert’s Joke

“Who’s on first?” the sixth grade boy said as the florescent orange rubber bands on his braces practically glowed in the increasing darkness. He eagerly awaited my response.

“Yes,” I answered.

There was a moment’s pause and then he looked confused.

“But who’s on first?” he repeated. He wanted the routine to continue, unaware that he is the one responsible for that.

“That’s right,” I answered.

My teaching partner and I had just finished doing Abbot and Costello’s famous routine and now the student was trying to recreate it with me. It happened every year. We’d do Who’s on First at our outdoor education camp and for days, students would try to do the routine with us. And of course they always failed. The apparent word salad that makes up the piece is actually a very carefully crafted word play with an intricate but flexible structure. Part of the artistic genius of the sketch is that it allows for improvisation. I watched and listened to many recordings of Who’s on First while creating a script to memorize. Not only did Abbot and Costello often do it differently, Lou would throw in a wrinkle that created a verbal trap that only he could find a way out of. It is a brilliantly crafted work that gives the appearance of being spontaneous.

Interestingly enough, there are actually people who don’t find this skit funny. Part of that is because different people have different senses of humor, and partly because some people have no sense of humor at all. This might be due to subject matter, they really love baseball and can’t stand to see it mocked, or they lack the mental ability to appreciate irony, sarcasm or word play. The point I’m trying to make is, no matter how funny something is, there are people who will not laugh at all. Laughter is subjective, but comedy is not.

Comedy is an art form that requires careful construction and a complex interplay of form and function. Good comedy always has structure and organization that can be hard for amateurs to see or appreciate. This is especially true if one takes issue with the subject matter. Exhibit A is the kerfuffle over Stephen Colbert’s monologue when he played the “dozens” on President Trump. The issue of whether it was appropriate is certainly debatable, but on one hand it is hard to argue that the President isn’t fair game for all manner of insults, put downs, or even vilification. The line of reasoning that the office deserves respect even if one dislikes the man, has no historical support. Other than George Washington, presidents have always been subjected to abuse by the press and entertainers. As an example, Lincoln was not a beloved figure in his own time. In fact, he was often portrayed as a gorilla or ape in political cartoons.

Republicans in particular have no business squawking about Colbert’s treatment of Trump. Considering their tolerance of the abuse tossed at Obama by congressmen shouting “liar” during the State of the Union Address, Matt Drudge, and Breitbart, it is beyond hypocrisy for them to feign outrage at Colbert’s bit. It also ignores the context of the monologue. Trump was rude and insulting to John Davidson in a way I have never seen a President behave. Even Richard Nixon maintained his demeanor while being harangued by Dan Rather. Trump’s incoherent response to Davidson’s question about whether he was sticking to the narrative that Obama illegally wiretapped him was baffling. His dismissal of Davidson for having the nerve to even ask the question was petty, childish, and unseemly.

In baseball, when a pitcher deliberately hits a player, it is expected that the injured player’s pitcher will retaliate. It’s an unwritten rule of the game. Colbert was sticking up for his teammate. Trump was rude and insulting to Davidson. Colbert replied in kind. It’s hardly a fair fight. Colbert has jokes. Trump has nukes that are both literal and figurative. Firing Comey and threatening to end press conferences are just some of Trump’s nuclear options. But none of this is what really bothers me about the whole incident.

We have entered a period of history when words are meaningless. It’s not the first time. Socrates was put to death in part because of challenging the super PAC of its time, the Sophists. When I was in school, accusing someone of Sophistry was an insult. It meant that someone was playing word games to twist the meaning of something. Listening to Kelly Anne Conway is Sophistry at its finest. Sophistry, at its core, uses logical fallacies and legalese to trick voters. Clinton’s attempt to separate oral sex from sexual intercourse is a splendid example.

And oral sex is at the center of my problem with the attacks on Colbert. The claim is that Colbert accused Trump of performing oral sex on Putin and that this accusation constitutes, not simply vulgarity, but homophobia. Give me a break. Setting aside obvious silliness of Republicans accusing anybody of homophobia, it is not what Colbert said. I shall try to be delicate in defending an accurate reading of Colbert’s words. If you want the exact wording, YouTube it. Basically, Colbert said, after a long series of elaborate insults, that the only good use for Trump’s mouth was as a holster for Putin’s daddy parts.

The actual word Colbert used was bleeped and is a four letter euphemism for a specific part of the male genitalia. The fact that it ends in the letter k confused me at first. I guessed the wrong one, but for the purposes of the joke, it doesn’t matter. The word holster does matter a great deal, however. Putting something in a holster means it is not being used. It is a passive rather than active behavior. The word choice adds a level of complexity to a joke that, on the surface, appears crude and one dimensional. The condition Colbert describes would require Trump to be quiet, something that many of Donald’s biggest fans wish he would do more often. What it doesn’t describe is a sexual act.

If one were to ascribe sexuality to Colbert’s joke, then a linebacker pulling on an athletic supporter would be engaging in a sexual act. So would a woman using a feminine protection device. This is obviously ridiculous. It is equally ridiculous to demand Colbert’s termination. Where was the conservative outrage when the draft-dodging Ted Nugent told Hillary to “suck on” his AR-15?

Colbert doesn’t need my defense. The First Amendment and his increased ratings take care of that. And Trump doesn’t need anybody to defend him either. Verbal abuse comes with the territory of being famous. But our language does need defending. Words have to have specific meaning for effective communication to occur. Nowhere is this more apparent than in humor. The specific meanings of words as well as their alternates form the backbone of what makes us laugh. And the best defense of Colbert is that his joke made his audience laugh. Hard. If you didn’t, that says more about you than it does about Stephen Colbert.