In Appreciation of Stephen Colbert, Not Just as a Comedian, But As a Humanist
You know, sometimes I just wanna watch ‘The Daily Show’ without him entering me.”
I thought that this line, sprung from the movie Bridesmaids, was a funny description of the repetitive and mechanical sex life of a weary married couple, but beyond that it also really illustrated just what an impressive degree of cultural penetration Jon Stewart has achieved. Easily the most influential and perhaps even the only relevant late night talk show host, he’s the man now, the guy that everybody pays attention to.
It used to be that news was delivered to the public by talking heads who, ignoring all the compromises and impositions imposed upon them by their corporate masters, assumed a haughty air of impartiality. What they proudly mistook for journalistic objectivity was actually just an absence of context, and it was into this dissonant chasm that Jon Stewart, an expert satirist, stepped, revolutionizing the delivery system by which populist news is now disseminated to the public.
This is a good thing, a heroic thing, even, and against all expectation, Stewart has become one of the most trusted men in America, a modern Walter Cronkite. He’s just as smart as hell, and watching him step off his own show and allowing the tables to be turned and be interviewed by another host— usually an ideological enemy— is to see genius at work. His evisceration of the smug Tucker Carlson and manhandling of Chris Wallace was almost embarrassing to watch. Stewart just ran circles around them.
Beyond all this though, Stewart’s show has also served as the launching pad for much of the top comedic talent now entering the mainstream. “The Daily Show” is a writers rather than performers program really, and the comics that come out of it tend to the cerebral rather than the more visual work produced by the “SNL” comedy factory.
My favorite talent that beamed down from “The Daily Show” Mother ship is the brilliant and utterly fearless Stephen Colbert. Boyish despite his age, he’s just as charming, likeable and good-natured a person as you can imagine. A former Sunday school teacher, Colbert was the youngest of 11 children and was raised by devout Catholic parents who encouraged their children to think critically and continually question their faith. At the age of 10, Colbert lost two of his brothers and his father to a plane crash. It’s an unusual background, I think, and one that’s helped shape a man who’s unusually attuned to the dissonances and tragedies implicit in American culture and the human condition at large.
Looking back, you can see the rudiments of the character he plays on the “Colbert Report” in “Strangers With Candy.” In this cult classic (that plays out like a David Lynch directed After School Special) starring Amy Sedaris, Colbert plays a pitifully misinformed history teacher who mistakenly thinks his gay life is a secret.
In one scene, while about to go at it with another teacher in a broom closet, Colbert leapt up and smashed the ceiling light as prelude to an explosion of unbridled passion. In this improvisational flash, Colbert displayed an incredible physical wit and a kind of genius in explicating the characters obsessive kink with secrecy and repression. It was a small moment, but a brilliant one.
Of course it’s the “Colbert Report,” where he plays a “well-intentioned, poorly-informed, high status idiot” where he’s made his mark. As if pulling a pole out of a pool and showing us the difference between the refracted, perceived image and the reality of that image, he performs a kind of magical trick of deconstruction on each episode. It’s been on for 7 seasons now, expertly lampooning the punditry spinning so furiously out of the American right and it’s gathered as many awards as conceivably be given to a show in the process. It’s been a beautiful ride, but I think it’s finally time for the show to make its final report.
It’s an amazing feat to produce such satire every night, a huge testimony to Colbert, his writing team and the culture we live in, but what was fresh and exciting is starting to feel predictable, even mailed in. The bits in which Colbert advertizes products on the show— an ironic way of trying to work both within and without the system—just feels like irritating, even embarrassing product placement instead of experimentation, now. And I would love to see Colbert, a man of great talent and curiosity, branch out into other endeavours. The show hasn’t diminished significantly in quality, but it’s own success and prominence in our political culture has forced it to work from the inside, and once politicians start trying to be hip and in-on-the-joke, the joke has to change.
No matter, Colbert has more than earned the right to do whatever he wants, and if that’s to continue with the “Colbert Report” for another 30 years, God bless him. He has given us moments of utter brilliance in this guise, including his assault on Wikipedia when he got viewers to write in declaring that the elephant population in Africa had tripled in the last six months. This act, which clarified the nature of Wikipedia reality, and that of news reportage in general, shamed the entity into changing the nature of it’s editorial policy.
Another golden moment came when Colbert was invited to give a speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. In front of George W. Bush and an array of privileged and entitled beltway types, Colbert, staying in character, gave one of the most lacerating and penetrating critiques of the administration and the media that marketed for them, imaginable. In what was supposed to be a gentle festival of self-congratulation and inside jokes, Colbert dropped an atomic bomb. It was jaw-dropping stuff, an incredibly courageous and even selfless thing to have done.
A graduate of Northwestern University, Colbert was asked to deliver the commencement address there earlier this summer. After the requisite comedy, Colbert once again revealed what a lovely man he truly appears to be. Speaking from his experience, he advocated a humanist approach to a life that whether we wanted it to be or not, was going to be a work of improvisation, reminding students that they were destined to serve that which they loved— so take care to be true in your love— and that they could not “win” their lives.
It was beautiful, simple, wise and kind.
The thing about Stephen Colbert is that in spite of the invective that can come from him, he doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body. He loves life and the people who inhabit it, and in him we see an innocence and purity that’s matched by intelligence and talent. And in him, we see not just the best of ourselves, but the best expression of American principles, too.