Did Stephen Colbert and Joaquin Phoenix take satire too far?

Both Joaquin Phoenix and Stephen Colbert have taken recent criticism for giving performances that masqueraded as serious but were really charades.

Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS/AP
Joaquin Phoenix (l.) joins host David Letterman on the set of the "Late Show with David Letterman last Wednesday to apologize for his 'joke' February, 2009 appearance.
Charles Sykes/AP/File
Joaquin Phoenix before appearing on David Letterman's show in 2009.

So, if you crack a joke and nobody laughs, is it funny? That is a question making the rounds of the punditsphere this week after the curious political/pop culture one-two at the end of last week.

On Friday, there was Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert testifying before a congressional hearing on immigration and farm workers' rights – fully in character as a mock-conservative talk show host. Some representatives smiled gamely as he made mock racist comments and rapped politicians in general, while others – notably Republicans – called him “inappropriate.”

On Wednesday, actor Joaquin Phoenix told late-night talk show host David Letterman that Mr. Letterman had been an unsuspecting player in the actor's new movie, “I’m Still Here.” In 2009, a bearded and disheveled Mr. Phoenix went on Letterman's show to announce his retirement from acting. But that announcement, it turned out, was a hoax made for the actor's new faux documentary.

Letterman, with a vigor that appeared only half-joking, demanded that Phoenix tell the audience he had been duped and was not part of the hoax.

Looming just around the corner are two full-scale mock rallies in Washington, D.C. – initiated by Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart in tandem with Mr. Colbert. The event has more than a few politicians as well as fans scratching their heads about whether to laugh, jump a plane to the Woodstock for this generation (sans drugs and nudity, according to Stewart) – or demand the National Park Service refuse the pair a permit to meet on the National Mall.

And so, the query arises, can you take a joke too far? If so, when has it happened, how do we know it, and why should we care?

“I don’t think its possible to go too far when you have an intelligent humorist at the helm,” says comedienne Carla Collins, who has been called Canada’s answer to Tina Fey. From her outsider vantage point, she notes that the US is a nation “based on rebels, and you will get mixed reactions no matter what or when you rebel.”

She calls Colbert’s testimony “the boldest move going in, because he had to know it was going to go over like Mothers Day at the orphanage no matter how brilliant he was.” She calls it a “brilliant way to break up the stodgy, ossified Congress.”

It is possible to undermine a personal “narrative,” by so turning off your audience that any larger message gets lost, says Amber Day, author of the upcoming "Satire and Dissent.” But in the case of Colbert, she says, if you realize that he understands his medium, then his motives and methods make sense.

“His real audience is not actually the politicians at that hearing,” she says, but rather the viral viewership that will follow the event on the Web.

“He is counting on those clips to play endlessly through the online environment, which has very little to do with the politicians holding that hearing,” says Ms. Day. So while even congressional fans of the comic may have squirmed in the room at his comments, she says, noting that many Democrats surely wondered behind their smiles why he was dissing” them as well, “his purpose is to speak truth to power, not make the politicians who might view him more favorably feel happy at his presence.“

American politics has a healthy and long tradition of vocal satirists pointing out the hypocrisy in high places, from the early pamphleteers on up through even such controversial figures as Don Imus and Howard Stern, says former chairman of CBS Radio Joel Hollander.

A good satirist should always be making somebody uncomfortable, he says. Whether it’s a congressional hearing or the White House Correspondent’s dinner, nobody should be surprised when somebody’s feelings get hurt. “If you invite a lion, don’t be surprised when he bites,” he says with a laugh.

Even actors-turned-social commentators such as Sasha Baron Cohen and now Phoenix have a place on this spectrum of social critique, points out Ms. Collins, the comic. “They are trying to poke holes in your assumptions about reality,” she says, “something that is very much in line with political satirists and the tradition of free speech in this country. “

However, adds Hollander, not everything that passes for political comedy these days is so high-minded. There is plenty of lowbrow humor directed at politicians saturating the 24/7 Internet and cable space. It is possible to go too far quite fast when on broadcast TV, he says, and to a lesser degree on cable.

But, he adds, “when it comes to the Internet these days, pretty much anything goes. If you realized that one third of all Internet searches relate to porn, then you pretty much know that it’s hard to go too far with a joke any more.”

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