WINEKE: Colbert is Funnier Out of his Bathtub

MADISON, Wis. — Stephen Colbert is usually one of the funniest men on television but, this week, he is delivering his monologue from his New Jersey home and it pretty much falls flat.

Monday night, dressed in suit, white shirt and tie, he sat in his bathtub under a blanket of bubble bath foam. Tuesday he was on his patio and Wednesday he sat on a porch. None of it was very funny.

To be sure, this isn’t a funny time. But I think the problem was more than that.

The New York City based late night television shows no longer have studio audiences. Across the country city, state and national authorities have banned groups of more than 10 from gathering.

And Colbert, like any comedian, preacher or public speaker I know, cannot thrive without an audience. He is not just a guy telling jokes. He is a guy in communication with a specific group of people and, only incidentally, with the rest of us sitting at home watching.

It’s not just entertainers. Professional athletes and tried, and pretty much failed, to play sports in empty stadiums. They need the cheering crowds.

The thing is that we are a social people. We need each other. We need to see each other and hear each other and feel each other and smell each other; we need to be together.

Right now our country is engaged in a necessary but fearful experiment in seeing how long we can live isolated from our neighbors.

We have closed our churches, emptied our schools, shuttered our restaurants and bars, canceled both Country and Western and opera performances and urged people to stay away from barbers and dentists.

Will we get through this? Yes.

Will our institutions get through this? That’s going to depend a great deal on how long it lasts.

While institutions are vehicles for bringing people together, institutions have separate lives of their own. Churches and symphony halls and restaurants and clothing stores all occupy buildings that need to be heated and maintained. These institutions will mostly survive so long as those who support them believe there is going to be a return to something approaching normal.

The shut-downs are buying our leaders time to figure out what to do next.

I don’t envy them that task. And I understand their first priorities are going to be to figure out how to find hospital beds and how to keep our nation’s industries from disappearing.

At some point, however, we’re going to have to think about how to keep our cultural base from falling into the abyss because it is that cultural base that buttresses the values that keep everything else working.