Housekeeping: old news

Exciting old news: back in January I had an opinion piece about the Barron Trump tweet which got Katie Rich booted off of SNL published on Chortle. It may be of some interest in light of the post below on Stephen Colbert.

Colbert Report

Steven Colbert’s suggestion that Donald Trump’s mouth is suitable only to be “Valdimir Putin’s cock holster” (above video, about 11:30 in) has drawn a great deal of comment, both on its implications for free speech and how the issue (and coverage of it) have been manipulated by different political factions. Two issues which underlie a lot of the debate have not drawn such attention: whether his joke was in fact homophobic, and how an answer to that first question is best decided.

I doubt if Colbert himself is a homophobe, or if he intended to denigrate anyone but Trump when he told this joke. Nevertheless, it is understandable that he has drawn criticism, whatever the motivations of some of his critics. At the very least, he and his writers were very careless in letting this joke through.

The joke is making a point about Trump (that he is subservient to Putin) by assigning him a fictional sexual relationship with Putin. The conceit of the joke is that the fictional sexual relationship is a grossly exaggerated version of Trump’s perceived relation with Putin. In order to grasp that conceit, one must assume, at least for the purposes of the joke, that engaging in this kind of sexual relationship (i.e., performing fellatio on someone else) is grossly subservient behaviour.

This trope about gay men (and heterosexual women) has a long and disreputable history. If a similar joke had been told about a gay man, say Milo Yiannopoulos, I take it that it would have been obviously homophobic; likewise if it had been told about Hilary Clinton. In each case, the joke would have worked by presenting a stereotyped characterisation of the target’s sexuality which many people – rightly, I think – would find offensive.

It might be thought that a relevant difference is that Trump is not actually gay. This matters insofar as Trump himself could not claim to be have been the victim of a certain stereotype; rather, he was the target of a joke which made use of this stereotype. But that is the point: that the joke employed the stereotype meant that gay men were, so to speak, collateral damage.

There is another aspect to this debate which potentially has much father-reaching implications. I am not gay, but I can give my opinion on whether or not Colbert’s joke was homophobic. But is it not up to gay men (and perhaps women) to decide whether or not this joke is genuinely offensive? If a number of gay men were to say that they weren’t offended by the joke, or that no harm was done in any case, who am I to disagree?

One reason to take what they say seriously is that they are presumably better placed than me to know what gay men in general would think about this issue. Better placed, but not necessarily right; after all, it seems that different gay men had different views on the joke (as, for instance, Steven Thrasher acknowledged in his article). I am Irish, but I wouldn’t presume to know what all Irish people, or even the majority, felt about a certain joke simply because of my nationality.

There is something clearly amiss with a person who is not a member of a certain community presuming to know when members of that community should be offended, regardless of what they actually feel. In recent years we have become much more sensitive as a society to the importance of different social and culture perspectives when it comes to deciding what is or is not offensive. But there should also be a place for critical reflection from one’s own perspective, informed by views from other perspectives but not wholly dependent on them.


The Good, The Bad and the Smugly

Caitlin Flanagan’s piece in The Atlantic is the latest in a long line of articles berating American liberals for their condescending attitude towards their more conservative fellow citizens, and suggesting that this attitude may have contributed to the coronation of President Trump. A thread running through these articles has been the role of satire, and in particular the late-night talk-show monologues of John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah et al. As Emmett Rensin put it in a widely-discussed piece from last year,
Over 20 years, an industry arose to cater to the smug style [of American liberals]. It began in humor, and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy and that its opponents were, before anything else, stupid.
He also correctly predicted the wages of this style:
Faced with the prospect of an election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the smug will reach a fever pitch: six straight months of a sure thing, an opportunity to mock and scoff and ask, How could anybody vote for this guy? until a morning in November when they ask, What the fuck happened?
There are points in both Rensin and Flanagan’s pieces with which one could take issue. For instance, one could certainly question whether, as Flanagan suggests, the late-night hosts decided en masse during the election to criticise not just Trump and his retinue, but anyone considering voting for him. But it is hard to deny the thought that for someone inclined to support Trump, it was reasonable to feel that their views were being dismissed; or that the perceived smugness of late-night comics and their liberal fans provides a convenient way of capturing the liberal media and the whole liberal elite’s disdain, as more conservative Americans see it, for Trump and his supporters.
Smugness is a term which is hard to pin down, but which feels right in certain circumstances – and as someone who watches a fair bit of these late-night comics, I have to say that they often do come across as smug. This is not so much a matter of what they say but as how it is said: it is a question of tone, a sense of being overly satisfied with one’s own correctness and of talking down to those who might disagree.[i] Flanagan picks out the following clip from John Oliver as epitomising this:

When John Oliver told viewers that if they opposed abortion they had to change the channel until the last minute of the program, when they would be shown “an adorable bucket of sloths,” he perfectly encapsulated the tone of these shows: one imbued with the conviction that they and their fans are intellectually and morally superior to those who espouse any of the beliefs of the political right.[ii]
Something which has not been much discussed in many of these articles is the possibility that a certain format may contribute towards the sense of smugness. All of the shows that Flanagan mentions involve their hosts performing straight-to-camera monologues. Their styles vary (Samantha Bee often comes across as irritated, verging on furious; Stephen Colbert as trying to be suavely above it all; Seth Meyers as a little goofy) but in each case the set-up involves the host assuming a position of authority. They know what’s going on, they use this knowledge to expose the stupidity, ignorance or hypocrisy of others (preferably Republican others), and they invite you to follow their direction in laughing at the target. This is not a format which tends to convey much self-doubt, even if the host acknowledges that a particular issue is complicated or that different viewpoints are legitimate; by acknowledging this, they are often implicitly contrasting their open-mindedness with the dogmatism of others.

Of course, any form of satire will involve poking fun at a target, and will implicitly set up the satirist (and the audience) as above the butt of the joke. But not all satire conveys a sense of superiority, even if it is predicated on it. For instance, Stephen Colbert rose to fame playing right-wing wing-nut ‘Stephen Colbert’, delivering straight-to-camera monologues eviscerating spineless liberals, while of course really sending up the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Insofar as Colbert’s persona was modelled on right-wing talk-show hosts and commentators, he was implicitly claiming superiority over them in order to heap scorn upon them. But this sense of superiority isn’t manifest in his performance.

This may be as simple a matter as Colbert’s not talking down to his targets, but rather enacting their hot air-fuelled rhetorical flourishes. The joke is still at their expense, but it’s not spelled out. Colbert, in his old persona, showed the ridiculousness of right-wing blow-hards rather than stating it. In contrast, a format in which the comedian is constantly telling the audience just how wrong-headed certain people are can hardly help being smug, whatever political stance the comedian is adopting.

[i] Rensin subsequently pointed out that he was not so much concerned with liberal smugness as with what he termed the ‘Smug Style. This phrase is somewhat misleading: as Rensin defines it, the Smug Style is not really a style but a set of beliefs about politics, liberals and conservatives. In any case, what I am more interested in is what is properly termed ‘style’, a style of comedy which conveys a sense of smugness. This style may in part be rooted in the beliefs which Rensin identifies, but it is not a matter of having those beliefs but rather of how they are conveyed.
[ii] Actually, I found this example unconvincing. Oliver’s segment on abortion is predicated on the assumption that abortion is a legitimate option for a pregnant woman, at least in some circumstances. The people he was advising to switch over were those opposed to allowing abortion in any circumstances whatsoever. Given the particularly divisive nature of this issue, it is hardly the epitome of liberal smugness to suggest that those holding such a view would get little of value out of what was to follow.


Dissecting The Lobster

(Warning: some spoilers)
A man checks into a hotel, accompanied only by his dog. He has forty-five days to find a mate and begin the process of reintegrating into the only socially acceptable way of living, in a couple. If he fails, he gets turned into an animal. It’s not all bad, though; he does get to choose which animal.
The Lobster combines a wry look at relationships and social pressures with Yorgos Lanthimos’s trademark devious scenarios and obscurely threatening atmospherics.[i] The film has been widely described as a satire and also compared to Kafka, whose work is not exactly satirical but functions in a similar way, presenting what is recognizably an exaggerated and distorted version of our society. What I found curious about the film was how these different elements undermined each other.
Not everyone would agree. In the generally favourable notices, reviewers saw the combination of the film’s carefully constructed fictional world and satirical edge as providing much of its bite. Here’s Bob Mondello on NPR:
Lanthimos is fond of hermetically sealed satires like this, where the logic is rigidly internal and the results of following that logic determinedly strange. The Lobster is his first film in English, and it plays cleverly with the compatibility assumptions behind, say, singles groups and online dating sites.
‘Hermetically sealed’ is the mot juste; Mondello inadvertently puts his finger on what I disliked about the film. The fictional world is very cleverly constructed, but it leads the film to overplay its satirical point.
The first half of the film, more or less, is set in the hotel, and there is much fun to be had working out the rules of the game, both social and otherwise. There are plenty of droll moments, from couples in the hotel being given children to prevent them from arguing, to Colin Farrell inquiring into what sexual options are available, to Olivia Coleman, dependably superb as the hotel manager, reminding Farrell of what he has signed up for:

In this part of the film, the fictional construction and the satirical points work together: the fictional world is unfolded for the audience in a series of barbed comments about relationships, romance and the pressure to find a partner. The world Farrell finds himself in is in many respects a version of our own, but one where certain implicit social conventions have been codified and are backed by the law.
The problems start when Farrell escapes from the hotel. The loners he stumbles across living in the woods reject the strictures of mainstream society, and are hunted for their pains by hotel guests. So far, so like a number of science fiction films. However, the loners do not only reject the requirement to form couples, they do not permit their own members to pair off. This makes for a pleasing symmetry in the fictional world: both ordinary society and the loners who reject it turn out to be bound by rigid rules concerning relationships. But the satirical point of this symmetry is less clear. The attitude of the loners feels like a contrivance rather than an exaggerated version of something with which we are familiar. It is noticeable that the jokes which studded the first half of the film largely vanish during Farrell’s sojourn in the woods.
Perhaps it might be suggested that in these scenes the film is satirising something more general, namely any group which rejects mainstream society but which imposes its own strict conventions. But in the context of this film, such an interpretation feels like a stretch. The loners are rejecting mainstream society, but specifically because of the requirements concerning couples. It is not explained why they would wish to be bound by new rules, and without any motivation for this the satirical point is unclear.
Granted, it is not made clear either why mainstream society in this fictional world insists so rigidly on people forming lasting relationships, but there is no need, since in our society there is a familiar pressure on people to do so. Without some way to link the motives of the loners back to our own social mores, even if that way is rejecting them – because of a fear of commitment, or an exaggerated sense of isolation or of personal space – the fictional world is untethered from our own, drifting too far away for the kind of proximity that is crucial to satire.

[i] Dogtooth, his first film, is highly recommended (both that film and The Lobster were written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou).


Holiday Season

Jacques Tati is frequently mentioned as a comic pioneer, and occasionally as a comic genius. His body of work is relatively small, but has influenced some very well-known comic figures (Terry Jones has recorded enthusiastic DVD introductions for some of Tati’s films, and Rowan Atkinson has acknowledged the significant debt Mr. Bean owes to M. Hulot, Tati’s most famous creation).
I recently saw Les Vacances du M. Hulot, Tati’s second feature and the only non-English-language film in Time Out’s list of the best 100 comedy films.[i] It was a curious experience – I saw it in a cinema where the audience were mostly silent throughout, and yet I didn’t get the impression that people were put out by the film’s failure to coax many laughs. In part this may be because some of the appeal of the film is less about comedy than about something harder to pin down: nostalgia, simplicity, or an acceptance of the vagaries of life and the idiosyncrasies of other people.[ii]
Or the audience may have primarily come to admire the film’s technical accomplishments.[iii] Tati has a superb eye for constructing a scene that develops (or falls apart) to reveal one telling detail. To take one example, the sequence featuring tourists boarding an overcrowded bus (starting at 1.10 here)

culminates in a spare child popping up in the steering wheel, the kind of droll grace note of which Tati is so fond. This meticulous construction of a scene around a single visual detail has been taken up a number of subsequent directors, for instance Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who has used it in films ranging from the rather saccharine (Amélie) to the inventively dark (Delicatessen).[iv]
That said, these kinds of details are charming or at most somewhat amusing, rather than being actually funny. More generally, the film sharply illustrates some of the limitations of the kind of comedy Tati was working with, which might be characterised as gentle slapstick.
The first limitation is that too many of the jokes rely on people behaving extremely stupidly. It is true that a great deal of narrative comedy relies on people making mistakes of one sort or another, but this need not be an issue for the audience (for instance, it may be plausible that from the character’s point of view, what they are doing makes sense). In M. Hulot there is no attempt to explain this behaviour or put it into some sort of context where it can be understood – it is crushingly obvious, and the film is cheapened by including so many set-pieces which rely on it. Other characters are endlessly prone to being distracted by Hulot and spilling their drinks, or mistaking what is plainly a canoe for (presumably) a sea monster (from 0.28 here)

or proving to be the among most inept tennis players the world has ever seen:

A different film could probably get away with scenes like these – a film which was set a few degrees further removed from reality, or one with a wilder feel or looser logic. As a general rule of thumb, the more antic a film, the more stupid behaviour can be funny in it. To complain about an entire marching band walking into a wall

or a fleet of police cars finding new and inventive ways to enter a pileup

would be to miss the point – and the tone – of Animal House or The Blues Brothers. But in M. Hulot, such behaviour feels forced – it jars with the gentle observations of much of the film.
The second drawback of this kind of humour is its rigidity. Again, a great deal of humour relies on fairly rigid conventions and rules, but again this can be moderated or at least disguised, for example by varying the subject-matter or tone of different scenes, or even by subtleties of phrasing and expression. In M. Hulot, the scenes are set up and dispatched practically by clockwork, in a way which quickly becomes irritating: things are always arranged so that Hulot inadvertently upsets the other characters, or they inadvertently upset each other. This means that a sense of the unexpected, so crucial to genuine comic creativity, is missing. The film reminded me of a stand-up relying too heavily on puns – some might be genuinely funny, but if everything is a pun then not only do they tend to become predictable, but the element of contrivance becomes obvious and gets in the way of enjoying the comedy.

[i] Although it is, to all intents and purposes, a silent film. Nevertheless, it’s the only representative on that list from the non-Anglophone world.
[ii] Roger Ebert has some very perceptive things to say on the matter here. I can’t say I am entirely convinced, but he puts this line of thought very well.
[iii] About which Ebert is again spot on.
[iv] Co-directed by Marc Caro.


(part of the occasional series What is a joke?)
Almost every joke relies on background knowledge, something that the person telling the joke assumes those hearing it already know, and so does not actually state. Indeed, it is often crucial to the success of the joke that this knowledge is left unstated. To include too much information in setting the joke up is either to risk confusing the audience or to lose the element of surprise which the punchline requires. Hence, the classic way to kill a joke is to explain this background knowledge, though of course this fact has become such a staple of comic lore that it is ripe for comic use itself.[i]
A good number of jokes not only assume this background knowledge but exploit it – it is often crucial to a misdirection which is reversed, or in establishing the connection between the setup and the punchline. (For instance, the hoariest of ‘and that was just the teachers!’-style humour relies on our knowing how teachers typically act, in order to undercut this assumption).
The background knowledge is sometimes very general (jokes about the differences between men and women) but it can be much more specific, e.g., limited to knowledge common only to people in a certain social group, profession or nationality. Any joke of this kind is an in-joke: it is intended to be heard by insiders, people who will get the reference or already have the knowledge needed to understand the joke.
One interesting feature of in-jokes is that because they rely on this shared knowledge, they can get a desired response not necessarily by being funny; often, they work as a kind of shared affirmation that the joke-teller and the audience are in the know, that they get the reference or are part of the relevant social group. And yes, this can lead to a certain degree of smugness. But it does raise the question of how an in-joke can actually be funny, as opposed to just amusing those who understand what it’s about.
Here’s an example of an in-joke which is clearly funny: two behaviourists have just finished making love. The first says to the other ‘I know you enjoyed that, but how was it for me?’[ii]
Why is this funny? Well, it’s about sex, which helps; it’s a highbrow riff on a clichéd situation, which is another plus; but basically, it’s funny because it brings out a ridiculous consequence of a particular theory. It presents, in highly exaggerated form, a line of thought which some people have been tempted to follow, and it shows that this line of thought leads to an absurd dead end. In doing this, the joke adds value to the reference: to get the joke, you need to understand what behaviourism is, but in getting it you will also grasp how ridiculous it is (at least in this exaggerated version).
By way of contrast, here’s an example of an in-joke which is undoubtedly clever but not particularly funny: three logicians walk into a bar. The barman asks ‘Does you all want a drink?’ The first logician says ‘I don’t know’. The second says ‘I don’t know’. The third says ‘Yes!’[iii]  
(If you’re not sure what the joke is – and for what it’s worth, it had to be explained to me, which may say something about my aptitude for logic – see below.)[iv] [v]
In fact, I’m not sure if this counts as a joke at all (at least two people who heard it both said the same thing to me). It does follow a well-known jocular format, has the rhythm of a joke (including what looks a lot like a punchline), and relies on the listener making a connection which draws on relevant background knowledge. But what do you get, when you ‘get’ this joke?
It is true that in understanding why the final logician answered as they did, the listener grasps the thought processes behind the first two answers, so there is a leap from the information in the premise to the conclusion; and it is true that in many jokes a similar leap is required to get the punchline. But it is characteristic of jokes that the final piece of information not only throws the rest of the joke in a new light, but reverses or undercuts something (either our understanding of the previous pieces of information, or some assumption which we had been led to make).
I don’t think there is any comic reversal here. (At most, if you didn’t understand why the first two logicians answered as they did, the final answer might have clarified their thinking – but this doesn’t seem like a genuine reversal so much as clearing up something which had seemed confusing or arbitrary.) This a clever connection, and the way you grasp it might be quite like the way you grasp a punchline, but the line itself is more like the answer to a riddle, presented in a joke-shaped format.

[i] Douglas Walker had a great example of this in his Edinburgh show a couple of years ago.
[ii] This joke is aimed primarily at logical behaviourism – see b.ii here.
[iii] Tip of the hat to Vincent for introducing me to this one.
[iv] Each logician either wants a drink or does not. If the first logician did not want a drink, then she would have known that the answer to the barman’s question was ‘No’ (since in order for the correct answer to be negative, all it takes is for one of the logicians to not want a drink). So because she did not answer ‘No’, she must want a drink. But she does not know if either of her colleagues want a drink, therefore she could not answer ‘Yes’, hence her answering ‘I don’t know’. Same goes (more or less) for the second logician. But the third logician, having heard the answers from the first two, deduces that each of them wants a drink (since if either of them had not wanted a drink, they would have said ‘No’). And since the third logician wants a drink, he knows that the answer to the barman’s question is ‘Yes’. QED.
[v] There’s a further issue here with some background assumptions which the joke requires. Specifically, it only works if each of the logicians knows whether or not they want a drink. If it is possible that they do not know this, then the final logician could not conclude that the other two did want a drink, and so would not be in a position to answer ‘Yes’.


The Satire Paradox

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast on the satire paradox touches on a number of familiar themes, some of which are handled rather more surely than others.[i]

As Gladwell tells it, the paradox of satire is that because different audience members will bring different assumptions and prejudices to bear on the same material, what one person regards as satire another can regard as a genuine expression of the position being satirised.[ii] Heather LeMarre, an academic who has published on audience reactions to satirists such as Stephen Colbert, emphasises the degree to which in effect we see and hear what we want. To quote from the abstract of a paper she co-authored on Colbert (back when he ‘was’ a rightwing wingnut),

individual-level political ideology significantly predicted perceptions of Colbert's political ideology […] conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.

On the face of it, this example betrays fairly basic ignorance on the part of conservative viewers,[iii] given that Stephen Colbert (the comedian, not the rightwing wingnut) is quite clear that he does not mean what he says, describing his character as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot”. I don’t have any specific reason to doubt LaMarre’s findings, but I suggest that there is another sense in which satire is often more open to interpretation than it might seem. Indeed, it is quite predictable that this is the case.

Satire works by presenting an exaggerated version of its target, inflating some of its distinctive features beyond their usual proportions. The exaggeration is intended to make the target look ridiculous (or more obviously ridiculous), but the exaggerated version can also be taken as an outsized celebration of just these features. What’s more, people can take it this way even if they are aware that the exaggerated version is intended to look ridiculous. In other words, they can embrace the exaggerated presentation of the target while simply ignoring the satirical intent. Hence hand-wringing articles on The Wolf of Wall Street being celebrated by the very bankers it targets. Hence also Al Murray’s response to critics who accuse his audience of being too keen on his often ignorant and bigoted Pub Landlord character: “I think the people who are sympathetic to him may well be enjoying laughing at themselves, which is a thing people are allowed to do as well.”[iv] After all, people who enjoy Woody Allen’s films very often share the views and sensibilities he mocks, and very often are well aware of this. If this is possible for left-leaning cultural elites, it is surely possible for boorish bankers or UKIP voters as well.

Gladwell’s other main point concerns what seems to be one of the results of the satire paradox: more often than not, satire is intended to bring about some kind of change but fails to do so. One of his examples is Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney: 

a broad satire of lower-middle-class mores in the Thatcher years which ended up being co-opted by its targets and failing to make any difference.[v]  Gladwell goes on to raise questions about the effectiveness and even appropriateness of satire more generally.

One problem with this line of criticism is that Gladwell relies on a rather rigid view of the aims of the satirist, as when he suggests “Satire works best when the satirist has the courage not just to go for the joke”. This assumes that the primary aim of satire is political and at most secondarily about comedy. But why should we assume this? It might be that some satire is in effect political commentary or protest through the medium of humour, but there are other examples that are better characterised as humour directed at political targets.[vi]

The limitations of Gladwell’s view are exposed in his criticism of Tina Fey’s spoofs of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.

He tells us that “SNL brought Tina Fey in to skewer Palin out of a sense of outrage that someone this unqualified was running for higher office”. But it is highly questionable if a sense of outrage was the primary motive for this decision. For a commercial comedy show the imperative is to produce something which gets attention and viewers. No doubt the liberals who make SNL dearly wanted to take Palin down a peg or two, but that wasn’t the reason they wrote those sketches, still less why Palin herself appeared on the show.

A more general issue here is how satire, on Gladwell’s view, is supposed to ‘work’. If the satirist has the courage to not go for the joke, what are they going for, and what constitutes success in their endeavour? An obvious answer is: to bring about political change, by challenging established ideas and changing people’s minds. As Gladwell correctly points out, satire often fails to achieve anything like this. But this line of criticism is in danger of stacking the deck, by tasking satirists with a responsibility out of all proportion to their influence. Satire is for the most part an ineffectual form of protest, but as Bob Mankoff drily responded, “for the most part, even protest is an ineffectual form of protest”. 

Gladwell suggests “real satire […] uses a comic pretence to land a massive blow” – but a blow to what end? His own example of ‘real satire’ is the Israeli left-wing sketch show Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country). But more than a decade’s worth of ‘massive blows’ from Eretz Nehederet have accompanied a steady rightward drift in Israeli public opinion.

This doesn’t mean that satire has no effect: it just doesn’t, by and large, tend to change people’s minds. It is hard to believe that a supporter of consumer capitalism would come to a radically different opinion after seeing Loadsamoney. I suggest that when satire has a political effect, it tends to do so in other ways: it can form or consolidate our opinions on someone, or provide people with a prism through which a general sense of distaste or unease can be focused. Gladwell does not discuss this kind of effect, but considering it allows for a very different take on some of the examples he considers. For instance, SNL’s send-up of Palin is not particularly vicious as satire goes, but it undoubtedly had an effect in cementing the public’s view of her: as Gladwell himself admits, it can be hard to remember the difference between what was said by the real Palin and by her SNL facsimile. On the other hand, while Eretz Nehederet has not been particularly successful at winning over Israelis who do not share the liberal-left outlook of its creators, it may be a very appropriate vehicle for expressing the frustrations of those who do. Satire engages with political targets, but it has more ways of doing so than Gladwell acknowledges.

[i] Despite what I go on to say, the podcast is well worth a listen.
[ii] This is a familiar enough phenomenon to have a name: Poe’s Law.
[iii] Or it suggests they have adopted a complex and subtle view according to which ‘Stephen Colbert’ the rightwing wingnut is a ‘creation’ of ‘Stephen Colbert’ the left-wing comedian who is himself the creation of a person called ‘Stephen Colbert’ whose own views are more in line with the first of these creations than the second. This sounds rather too complex and subtle to be very plausible, but perhaps as left-wing liberal elitist I would be expected to say that.
[iv] As opposed to those, most famously Stewart Lee, who charged that Murray’s popularity meant that he attracted a following of people who missed his satirical point.
[v] And yes, it has aged rather badly.
[vi] Of course, comedy with no political or social target would presumably not be satirical at all, but this isn’t Gladwell’s point: he is discussing when satire works or does not work, not the difference between satire and non-satirical forms of comedy.