[14 January 2010]
Readista Francis astutely observed in the prior installment of this column that both Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report thrive upon MSNBC, CNN, and FoxNews’ broadcasts. As the cable news outlets position themselves as entertainment, Comedy Central’s late night shows more closely resemble ‘real’ news broadcasts.
Francis and I agree on this one thing: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report would not exist without cable news.
Francis and I disagree strongly over the intentions of certain cable news hosts, in particular, Bill O’Reilly. Francis claimed I never watched Bill O’Reilly and labeled him as a demagogue erroneously.
I have watched The O’Reilly Factor before. I am much more familiar with O’Reilly’s tabloid work on Inside Edition. Behind both desks, O’Reilly has unleashed his own cynical world view. Madonna and Congress’ health care plan both lead to the exact same smug, self-righteous excoriations.
I do give O’Reilly some credit. He adroitly rode the water spiral of tabloid and personality journalism down into the sewer. He has company there. Network colleagues Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck swim nearby. Representing the other side of the aisle, Keith Olbermann splashes water at him.
All four of these men manipulate their audience through blatant demagoguery. They merely reflect their audiences’ most reactionary impulses while avoiding any personal responsibility for their words.
An evening spent watching FoxNews or MSNBC would leave you with the impression that American politics is split between the right and those who hate the right. You would have no idea that there exists a majority of political moderates in this country (those mysterious and much-discussed ‘undecideds’). In the last 30 years, America has elected three moderate Presidents—one to a second term, even.
We are not wingnuts. We’re just simple, semi-ignorant, good-hearted Americans.
We are the Colbert Nation.
In the aforementioned prior installment of the column, I wrote that Jon Stewart represents us at our most aspirational. Stephen Colbert represents us as we truly are: patriotic, God-fearing, and easily confused. Stewart gets driven crazy by the dissonances in our body politic. Colbert embodies those dissonances.
Colbert’s ‘Stephen Colbert’ is a comedic game-changer as culturally significant right now as Letterman or SNL were at their peak. ‘Colbert’ is not a bit, not a simple impression. No, ‘Colbert’ is such a fully-formed persona that you can’t help but get lost in it. Every time I watch The Colbert Report, there is at least one moment, if not many, when I forget that he’s not a real host.
Think about how difficult that is. I never watch Borat or Ali G and think that’s not Sacha Baron Cohen. The closest comparison I can think of is Jack Benny, who built his life around the persona of the thrifty, egotistical ‘Jack Benny’.
But Colbert takes it one step further than Benny or any of his predecessors ever dreamed. His ‘Colbert’ interacts with the real world not just on weekday evenings. For crying out loud, The Colbert Report is sponsoring the US Olympic speed-skating team. Colbert has so committed himself to this character, that ‘Colbert’ is inarguably bigger than Colbert ever will be.
Last month, Colbert was in Chicago for Second City’s 50th anniversary. During a panel discussion with his writers, Colbert spoke about how he treats the show as ‘one continuous scene’ which goes on indefinitely. Each night the scene changes through ‘Colbert’‘s guest interview. Each night a different figure of either cultural, academic, or political significance arrives at the The Colbert Report and attempts to educate the close-minded ‘Colbert’.
The humor doesn’t come from the the fact that ‘Colbert’ is an idiot. Of course he’s an idiot. No, the humor comes from the honest reactions of the guest and the audience. They laugh in recognition. ‘Colbert’ nimbly reflects back all the assumed prejudices each guest faces.
‘Stephen Colbert’ is all of us. He’s every representation of America in the media. Colbert does not just imitate a single person. No, he’s impersonating an entire country.
Now, to the politics of the show. The Colbert Report trumpets the same claims of the populist right as O’Reilly, Hannity, and Beck. But the difference is that ‘Colbert’ wholeheartedly believes them. Just like Stewart has become our most trusted commentator, ‘Colbert’ has become the last sincere believer in the conservative America we as a nation turned away from four years ago. ‘Colbert’ continues to rock out to the right’s greatest hits like it’s still 2002.
We laugh at this and his pursuit of ‘truthiness’ because we as a nation fell for this schtick for real. ‘Colbert’ is no demagogue, no scourge. He’s just an ignorant gasbag who doesn’t realize the party’s over.
Not surprisingly, ‘Colbert’‘s success has paralleled the populist right’s fall. It becomes difficult to believe the fear-mongerers when they are being sent up so well each night. If you watch The O’Reilly Factor and The Colbert Report on the same evening you will experience disconcertingly similar experiences.
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report operate on opposite sides of America’s political divide. They do not have FoxNews or MSNBC at their elbow,.though. No, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report operate in America’s middle, and for that, are much more enlightening than any evening cable news hour.
Like The Daily Show, a week of watching The Colbert Report provides you with much more depth than anything this side of PBS. During the week I watched, ‘Colbert’ welcomed Fela: The Musical‘s Bill T. Jones, Vermont Senator and socialist Bernie Sanders, Director of Homeland Security Jeanette Napolitano, Conservapedia founder Andy Schlafly, and Rolling Stone contributor Matt Tabibi.
Colbert really shines during the interviews. I don’t know how much creative editing goes on after taping, but he comes off as a comedic ninja on TV. When informing Sanders that he won’t be ‘out poor-fathered’ by him or needling Napolitano over the White House gatecrashers, Colbert nails the exact tone of the ‘gotcha’ and semantic-centered interview/attacks the ‘legit’ broadcast media stage.
The highlight of the week for me had to be Schlafly’s appearance. First, Schlafly makes ‘Colbert’ look like a hippie. A bigger dork I haven’t seen on television in, I don’t know, ever. Schlafly intends on rewriting the Bible for conservatives (yes, there are people out there who don’t think the Bible is divisive enough).
The Colbert Nation hacked the site and replaced Moses with Colbert. Shlafly edited this out, much to ‘Colbert’‘s dismay. This led to Colbert’s quote of the week: “Who are these experts? ‘Cause I want to be one of them, ‘cause I believe in the conservative world view and I want to create my own reality the way you are.”
A fake news show hosted by a real host, followed by a real news show hosted by a fake host. I have never been a fan of concept-heavy comedy, but you might not find a more consistently entertaining hour of television than The Daily Show and The Colbert Report at any time of day.