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And Nothing but the Truthiness: The Rise (and Further Rise) of Stephen Colbert

Lisa Rogak

(Thomas Dunne Books; US: Oct 2011)

‘If you believe it enough, despite evidence to the contrary, then it’s true.’ (A summary of Stephen Colbert’s persona, Rogak 170)

British people are pretty smug when it comes to satire and irony. We produced Jane Austen, after all. OK, so Jonathan Swift was Irish – but we consider him British in certain circumstances, told you we were smug! For years we were happy to concede that our American cousins could do comedy well, no doubt. Frasier, Taxi, Cheers, all travelled supremely well. Not to mention all the film comedy. We like your oddness America, your quirkiness (not so sure about the self-conscious kookiness – Zooey Deschanel, what’s she all about – we’re still not sure?)

But Irony was ours. Americans could not survive irony, or sustain it. They are far too earnest and literal in their thinking. And then along came Stephen Colbert. That’s Col-berrr, not Col-BERT. Who does he think he is, French? He’s from New York, via South Carolina. How can he develop such a well-honed ironic sensibility? He’s not even Canadian! He has exploded one our favourite prejudices. Damn you, Colbert!!

Jon Stewart is all very well. He gets the joke, too. His satire is spot-on. But the irony, oh the irony! That’s the real trick. The delivery and the stamina that it requires are rare gifts. A lot of irony is often lost on the UK public, we too have been known to take things at face value and take them too seriously – I know, I know, hard to believe! (How else do you explain Piers Morgan’s career? And now we have given him to you – no, really, you don’t have to thank us – our pleasure!)

Stewart puts it best: ‘(Colbert’s) able to create a universe where something surreal happens that seems ordinary, and all of a sudden the absurd appears not mundane but expected, organic… He can have a conversation with Richard Holbrooke and Willie Nelson and it all makes perfect sense, and yet it couldn’t appear anywhere else without appearing burlesque. Somehow he has managed to create a fake world that has impacted and found standing in the real world.’ (Rogak, 176)

And THAT, Alanis Morrisette, really is ironic.

Rogak tours the life of Colbert in a thorough and entertaining fashion. Chronologically structured, but not routine, she manages to trace the origins through improvisation, study, performance (which included a Ken Russell opera in Italy as a teenager – he appeared nude on stage, by the way). His working relationships with Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello, and eventually Stewart, are assessed for the part they played in the refining of the persona of Colbert. We see the finished product with regularity – looking down upon us from the ‘Eagle’s Nest’ – and we know he has arrived. Where he came from is accounted for in great detail and with ample commentary from the man himself and those who have known him best. And, wow, what a NICE guy – is he for real??

So, the subject still maintains a certain mystique, it can be said. Co-existing in this man/performer is a sense of faith, fairness and fidelity. But there is also the most rampant mischief, sarcasm, and ruthless ability to puncture pomposity and demolish hypocrisy. The boundaries between reality and the ‘fakery of his role are fluid and sometimes very confusing for those that can’t (or won’t) get it. Rogak does an excellent job of trying to pin him down, but he retains his mercurial and impish qualities.

Although well-researched, Rogak omits an essential acknowledgment – where is the credit for the man himself, ‘Papa Bear’ O’Reilly?? Shame.


Dr Gabrielle Malcolm is a writer, artist and academic based in the UK. She is known for her publications on Victorian literature and culture and her writing on Shakespeare on stage, TV and Film. She has published alongside writers such as AS Byatt in 'The Dickensian' journal, and her performance art pieces were featured in the Liverpool City of Culture celebrations in 2008, at the Liverpool Tate amongst other venues. Recent publications include a chapter in 'Writing Women of the Fin de Siecle: Authors of Change' (Palgrave McMillan, 2011). She is an avid fan of the Gothic and the Neo-Victorian. Her literary blog 'A Special Mention' has many followers and she can regularly be found tweeting @gabymalcolm, with fellow Shakespeareans and fans of Gene Kelly.

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