How Stephen Colbert Saved America

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The Colbert Report may be coming to a close this week, but its influence on pop culture isn’t going anywhere.

The following is the opinion of the author and author alone.

On Thursday of this week, December 18th, what is either the first- or second-most important TV show of the early-millenium will end as Stephen Colbert signs off on The Colbert Report for the last time, in preparation for his elevation to David Letterman’s successor as host of CBS’ The Late Show.

This is, in no small terms, the end of an era. The Colbert Report ran for just under a decade on Comedy Central, and in doing so affected a level of change and influence on the popular culture and — through its relentless dressing-down of political hackwork — on 21st century American society itself. The only work of television that can lay even close to a similar claim is The Daily Show, the well from whence The Report sprung in the first place.

It’s impossible to talk about Colbert’s place in history without first talking about Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, but the two have profoundly differing circumstances of origin that made all the difference. In many ways, Daily had greatness thrust upon it and rose to the occasion. Under Stewart’s, er… “Stewartship,” the show pre-2001 had what seemed like an easy task: Swat the low-hanging fruit of foul-ups, bias and all-around foolish behavior of the “serious” American news media.

But in the immediate post-9/11 landscape, that role imbued it with an unexpected (perhaps accidental) position of honor. With the rest of the media often seeming cowed into deference over issues like the Iraq war, Gitmo and rest of the Bush Administration’s myriad follies for fear of being branded “traitors” to the memories of 9/11 martyrs, Daily’s broad “news of the day” mockery suddenly felt like a radical act. This was particularly true to a generation of young would-be voters who came to view Stewart and Company as being (if only by default) the only trustworthy news source of TV… the only voices that seemed willing to look at the endlessly ridicule-worthy media and politics of The Bush Years and say, simply and honestly, “This is ridiculous.

But while The Daily Show lived to carpet-bomb the foibles of the press (mainly cable news networks) as a whole, correspondent Colbert’s spin-off would take the form of a surgical-strike — a dagger directly to the heart of the American news media’s worst offender: The Fox News Channel and its then star-attraction, Bill O’Reilly.

Effectively a 24-hour mouthpiece for the right-wing political views of Newscorp/Fox boss Rupert Murdoch, Fox News was effectively a non-entity until 9/11 gave it an identity (in the form of unironic militaristic-cheerleading bombast slathered in eagles and flags) and a role as Palace Guard for the Bush Administration. To call the Fox of the early-00s simply right-wing or “conservative” is to do disservice to those philosophies — Fox’s ideology was whatever The Administration said it was, gussied up and rebranded as “love it or leave it”-style American Patriotism.

That’s why Bill O’Reilly was the perfect Fox host of the era: A blathering bully with no discernible logic behind his beliefs beyond personal hangups and a vague commitment to the cartoonish mythology of the “better America” of the 1950s. He was the perfect figurehead for spewing blatantly-contradictory arguments (“The government must be SMALL!” “…but not small enough that it can’t tap your phone without cause if you’re a ‘suspicious’ race, creed or religion!”) without looking like he ever once comprehended the contradiction. The present-day O’Reilly has mellowed a bit — he’s now just one more smug TV huckster peddling “historical” books and tacky merchandise — but in his heyday there was no media figure who drove comedy-writers to greater frustration. How do you parody something so worthy of parody, when the subject is such an obvious buffoon that the only “joke” to be made is to anguish over how it’s possible that the man’s (O’Reilly’s) audience doesn’t seem to grasp how much of a joke he is?

Stephen Colbert’s simple, deft answer? He didn’t parody. Or mock. Or even really exaggerate. He embraced the O’Reillyness and Foxness of his targets. That was the subtle genius evident from the beginning of the series: The Colbert Report borrowed Fox’s superficial slather of pop-art patriotism and O’Reilly’s bullheaded patrician righteousness and simply, matter of factly… “displayed” them.

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I don’t know that I can properly convey what the 2000s-era Fox News was like to anyone who wasn’t “there.” It was horrifying, but also darkly compelling. I can’t begin to imagine what audiences who took Fox News seriously might be thinking (but then again, I am one of those sheltered, ivory-tower, latte-sipping, tree-hugging, Church-skipping, book-reading, science-trusting, empathy-having East Coast Lib’rul Elites…) but for the rest of us its cultural omnipresence was pretty damn entertaining — if you could detach yourself enough. It was an irony-proof, real-life feed of the Federal Network propaganda feed from Starship Troopers.

Understanding that seemed the key to The Colbert Report’s success. While Colbert may have put himself on the map (and turned his then-new show into Must-See TV) by showing up in-character to verbally dismantle the corruption, obliviousness and eye-popping failings (moral, logistical and otherwise) of the Bush Presidency to The President’s face in what remains the greatest White House Correspondents’ Dinner hosting performance ever, The Report was more about winking re-enactment. It had often been postulated that a sizable chunk of The Daily Show’s loyal college-aged news-junkie audience evaluated their information diets by “hate-watching” the Fox News circus during the day so that they could watch Stewart & Friends hack it into confetti at night.Colbert zeroed-in on that sensibility brilliantly, offering viewers all the fun of laughing at Fox’s flag-waving tomfoolery without the bitter aftertaste of knowing that the wavers weren’t actually kidding.

But the superficial aesthetic lift was only half the brew: What made The O’Reilly Factor so perfect a model for Colbert to riff on was that “Papa Bear” was the only Fox host (until Glenn Beck, at least) whose egomania actually outpaced the network itself. As O’Reilly transcended Fox, so too could Stephen Colbert the actual person sneakily, subtly transcend Stephen Colbert the make-believe TV propagandist.

Just as there wasn’t actually anything tangible to link many of O’Reilly’s personal hang-ups and bugbears about this or that pop-cultural trivium to Fox’s broader mission of stumping for Bush/Cheney military adventures, there also needn’t have been anything to connect the parody version of that same mission to Colbert-the-character’s obsessions with bears or minor-league hockey — or Colbert-the-person’s sincere love of The Lord of The Rings, Star Wars, comic-books and other hardcore geek-fixations.

The result, cultivated with surprising quickness but nurtured to near-flawless over nine seasons, was one of the most astonishingly intimate relationships between TV host and audience ever witnessed: a part-improvised double-act that any orator (or professor, or politician, or, if we’re being frank, dictator) would’ve killed to command. Colbert’s audience would boo his straight-faced recitations of pro-Iraq talking-points, but then cheer sincerely when George Lucas turned up to challenge him to a duel with prop lightsabers. They’d hiss and roll their eyes at his put-on homophobia, hilariously outdated views on gender and “I don’t see race” cop-outs… but they’d also applaud wildly when Marvel Comics boss Joe Quesada showed up to bequeath the shield of the then-recently-departed (he got better) Captain America to “The second most patriotic man in America.”

They knew when to love him and when the loathe him, with Colbert communicating the “switch” often with only the hint of a smile or brief glimmer across the eyes — all of it grounded in an unfailing trust that The Colbert Report’s (and The Daily Show’s) viewers were both well-informed enough to get the references and smart enough to catch the hints. And it’s a testament to that trust that in nine seasons of essentially playing the cartoon-apotheosis of everything sinister and regressive in the American media, only once was the joke “missed” so profoundly as to cause an issue.

This column has already run long, and I feel like there’s so much more left to be said. While I’m looking forward to tremendously to seeing the “real” Stephen Colbert’s effect on the network late-night scene and remain excited about its planned replacement, The Colbert Report’s absence feels like something that will leave permanent crater in the TV landscape. For millions of viewers, hearing Stephen Colbert deconstruct the “villain’s perspective” on the American cable news day — pointing out the indefensible absurdity of various politicians’ and talking heads’ viewpoints by, well, repeating them — was a crucial part of their daily information-processing, and it’s easy to imagine how long his absence will continue to be felt. If, as many expect, Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to be a major party’s nominee for U.S. President in 2016, the lack of The Report’s incarnation of Colbert wagging his finger and parroting the inevitable sexist diatribes against her from the Fox News set will be profoundly felt.

Or maybe not.

It’s possible that The Colbert Report is going off the air at exactly the right time. Mocking Fox News (hell, mocking blunderbuss-unsubtle jingoism in general) will probably never go out of style, but Fox in the Age of Obama has slid so far into self-parody that at times The Report’s Flags n’ Eagles n’ Reagans Oh My! routine occasionally feels nostalgic and “quaint” next to a modern Fox where The O’Reilly Factor is now mostly an infomercial for its unctuous host’s ghostwritten “history” books. The “face” of Fox is no longer blustering daddy-figure windbags, but a rotating succession of what the business used to call (largely unfairly, it needs to be said) “News Bunnies” posed behind glass desks for the leg-gawking benefit of the audience – how can even the most outlandish satire compete with that?? And while the Becks and the Hannitys the O’Reillys still command an audience… it’s an audience that’s aging and shrinking, in tandem.

It’s not only possible but probable, then, that Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report effectively destroyed the ability of blowhard pundits like the one he parodied to be taken seriously by the Generation Xers and (especially) millenials who grew up watching him, many during the ages when long-term philosophical and ideological viewpoints begin to be most-earnestly formed. Sure, a lot of them may have been “snarky kids” grooving on seeing TV authority-figures get dressed down… but “snarky kids” grow up — “snarky kids” remember.

Stephen Colbert taught a generation of viewers that you could be skeptical without being cynical (my generation, the one called “X,” largely failed to learn that second part to disastrous effect). Without pushing, prodding or propagandizing, The Colbert Report reminded its audience to take information and facts more seriously — but also to not take the Fox News-style presentation of those facts seriously at all. With a wink, a smile and the occasional name-drop from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, Stephen Colbert may well have ensured that popular-culture will never give the “real” versions of what he so expertly embodied much cache ever again.

The legacy of The Colbert Report is a generation of informed, critical-thinking, news-engaged citizens who’ve grown up “knowing” that whenever a condescending, self-satisfied “gentleman” in a sharp suit wraps himself in The American Flag, goes on TV and pontificates in Dad Voice about “Honor!” or “Tradition!!” or “The way things ought to be!” or whatever the dog-whistle of the day is… that the proper response is to laugh in his face — because he is a joke and so is whatever retrograde claptrap he’s blubbering about.

And for that, Stephen Colbert (and his writers, and his producers, and Comedy Central, and The Daily Show too) should be forever proud.

Thank you, Stephen.


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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.