On the Loss of ‘The Colbert Report’ and the legacy of ‘Stephen Colbert’

Photo (Scott Gries)

Photo (Scott Gries)

It has been less than a year since ‘The Colbert Report’ ended, and it’s only a week until Colbert’s new ‘Late Show’ begins airing on CBS, but no matter how good, and possibly satirical, this new show will be, late night satire will never be the same. Don’t get me wrong, Larry Wilmore is doing great work on race and inequality, Trevor Noah will find his footing in Jon Stewart’s spot, and we still have John Oliver. But the Golden Age of late night satire is over, for now, because, as a self-proclaimed expert on satire, I can assert with some self-fashioned authority that ‘The Colbert Report’ (not to speak of its pairing with Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’) was one of the greatest accomplishments in satire in the last century—maybe of all time.

This is not because the show was well-written (it was), or biting (it indeed was), but because Stephen Colbert, in the guise of his persona, ‘Stephen Colbert,’ acted and improvised for nine years as an exaggerated champion for everything he disagreed with. This type of satire, in which a writer or comic lampoons the opposition by expressing ironic support for their position, has only been properly achieved by the greatest of wits. And even less often has a satirist actually convinced the opposition that he is one of them, a mistake learned the hard way by the Bush administration when they asked Colbert to speak at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2006, where he skewered the right-leaning room for 23 straight minutes.

This kind of convincing satire is so difficult to pull off, few have tried without the anonymity of the published word, which allows the writer to assume an ironic persona in word only, not in action. This textual disguise is usually the only way to make people believe you’re serious about praising a platform you don’t support. But Colbert was able to accomplish it by sitting front and center, using his own name and his own image, because he could improvise with such assertive irony that it seemed real. The only reason he didn’t win every available award for comedy, acting, and hosting since he began in 2005, is because people actually believed that he, on some level, was his character, and not just an accomplished actor, hilarious improviser, and brilliant satirist. Of course, his team of writers deserve credit for most of his jokes and segments, and they received their due acclaim from the Emmy’s, but irony and sarcasm only work if properly portrayed. Because of that, Colbert must be recognized as the true driving force behind the show’s satire.

Speaking specifically of the satire, Colbert’s jocular tone is typical of the Horatian style, but he can best be compared to Jonathan Swift in his method. Swift, one of the greatest satirists who ever lived, often used a persona to represent the folly he opposed. The naive and bombastic Gulliver is his most famous example (don’t be confused by the children’s film adaptations; Gulliver’s Travels is pure satire), and the writing persona of ‘A Modest Proposal’ is another. Written in 1729 amid a bout of famine and overpopulation plaguing Ireland, ‘A Modest Proposal’ suggested that the solution to Ireland’s problems was to let the rich purchase the babies of poor families, then eat them. He even offered a few recipes to make the most of the tasty little children. This was meant to satirize the wealthy, and the politicians who tried to push irresponsible legislation, and the reader was meant to be so disgusted by the idea of infanticide and cannibalism that he would realize just how important it was to care for the poor. Well, most readers got it half right. Allegedly, readers were so outraged by the idea of infanticide and cannibalism that they attacked Swift for what they believed to be his honest opinion. The irony was lost on a public too quick to take everything they read at face value. Sound familiar, Internet?

Now, Colbert’s persona was more obviously joking, but not so obviously fake. As I pointed out above, Republicans asked Colbert to host the Correspondents’ Dinner because they saw him as a conservative voice lampooning the liberal media. Whether they actually believed that he was a Republican cannot be confirmed, but they certainly didn’t think that a host who asked his guests such questions as “George W. Bush: Great President, or the greatest President?” would get up to the podium that night and use faux-praise to ridicule the President in front of a house packed with his supporters, and Bush himself, sitting six feet away. This was only six months after the first episode of ‘The Colbert Report’ aired, and it set the precedent for the rest of Colbert’s time as that character. He was never who you thought he was supposed to be, and nothing he said could be taken at face-value.

The strength of Colbert’s irony lied in the fact that his entire character was ironic. With every cause Colbert the character championed or opposed, the viewer had to flip it around in her mind in order to decipher the truth of what Colbert the satirist meant to express. The viewer had to be poised at every moment to find the truth, because Colbert only spoke in ‘truthiness.’ It was participatory satire. Will Leitch wrote in a farewell piece last year, fittingly titled ‘Stephen Colbert is Dead. Long Live Stephen Colbert,’ ‘It has been an amazing high-wire act, every night, watching one of the greatest live performers of our time create an intricate meta-upon-meta joke we can all feel in on.’ We felt in on the joke, because we were actively participating in the satire.

Participatory satire is perhaps the hardest for the satirist to pull off, because in participatory satire the satirist isn’t spoon-feeding arguments through wit and sarcasm, he’s playing with the argument, taking angles that the audience can’t lazily accept. Lazy acceptance of Colbert’s arguments would mean taking too seriously his outlandish statements, for good or ill. Colbert said, ‘My character is self-important, poorly informed, well-intentioned, but an idiot.’ He was an unreliable conservative arguing that liberals were unreliable, and we had to question everything he said because, unlike Swift, he didn’t just give voice to some outlandish beliefs like infanticide and cannibalism. Colbert bombastically proclaimed support for things that his opposition actually believed in. With Swift, no one in Ireland actually supported cannibalism and infanticide, but when Colbert bashed liberals, or evolution, or global warming, he was giving an ironic voice to real beliefs, and any conservative not careful enough to know what he was doing might actually be fooled into believing that Colbert was just giving a playful ribbing to their side, rather than deliberately subverting it. And that type of response is exactly what made the show subversive. Colbert was light-hearted enough to be accepted as a playful jester by the very people he was deliberately satirizing. Of course, the Correspondents’ Dinner showed his true colors, but he was never seen as an enemy to the right in the same way Jon Stewart was. Any Republican with a reasonable sense of humor could laugh along with Colbert despite the subtextual raillery, which allowed him to push the boundaries of his arguments without seeming fierce.

Stephen Colbert was Robin Hood disguised as Prince John, parading around like a king while the merry men who knew the truth laughed from the sidelines. As the years went on, and more people caught on to the truth of his character, he started to drop the act a bit, focusing a bit more on truth than ‘truthiness.’ He began to let his guests have their say instead of sarcastically belittling their claims; and his work on Super PACs in 2012 earned the show a Peabody Award for exposing the world of campaign financing. But throughout the series, he always fell back on that bitter irony that he wasn’t who he showed us he was, and that, accordingly, neither were the politicians and pundits he satirized.

Stephen Colbert will surely be a great host of the ‘Late Show,’ because he is an accomplished writer and comedian. But we will never again see him at the top of his comedic form, because for nine years we saw him do what only the most accomplished wits can do: he consistently embodied a character that supported the opposing side of what he actually believed in, then convincingly improvised as that character, on a nightly basis, for almost a decade. Stephen Colbert exposed folly in the most brilliant way—by showing it to us in the most ridiculous way, that we might recognize its foolishness and reject it ourselves. That is often the goal of satire: to present great folly that the audience might ridicule it and seek the golden mean between opposing extremes. Few have done that better than the bombastic, arrogant, ignorant pundit, ‘Stephen Colbert,’ and the loss of his character marked the end of a great era for political satire.

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