Stephen Colbert and Satire's Shortcomings
Updated: Mar 21, 2019
Stephen Colbert is a really, really funny man. Over 4 Million people tune in every weeknight to The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to watch his “relentless focus on the perpetual crisis at the White House” (Adalian, 2018) making him the most-watched man in a crowded field of US late-night television. You have to go back to 2003 to find the last time he was not nominated for an Emmy for his writing and performance.
That period encompasses the 9 years and 1447 episodes of The Colbert Report, an acerbic and relentless talk show hosted by Colbert’s deadpan portrayal of a vocal conservative pundit, or as he described the character, a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot” (CBS News, 2015). The show is a direct parody of the Fox News style of propaganda-cum-journalism which was exploding in popularity at the time (White, 2018) and was a hit with critics and audiences.
The most memorable outing of the “Stephen Colbert” character is probably his address to the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006. This annual gala dinner invites a comedian to address the audience, which includes the sitting President. During the Obama years this typically involved some jibes about his graying hair, slow speaking style, and references to whatever the latest political farce was, and Obama received it with good humour (Unsurprisingly, President Trump has refused to attend this event).
Colbert’s performance for George Bush was far less jovial. In his conservative persona he sets out to “Celebrate this President” with lines like “I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.” (Colbert) As he lauds the President’s failings, praises his disregard for facts, and attacks the media for reporting on wiretapping and global warming, there is minimal and tense laughter. The whole speech is hilarious, and made all the more incisive by the shots of the squirming and unsettled George Bush laughing through gritted teeth. Colbert remains completely in character throughout and never falters in his enthusiastic delivery. It is a remarkable performance and speaks truth to power in a way that few could manage.
Comedians like Colbert have an opportunity, that political scientists and journalists should be envious of, to bring their political opinion and analysis to a massive audience through the medium of comedy. Whilst I would happily tune in for a weekly debate show featuring a panel of respected academics, I doubt it will be replacing Mock the Week anytime soon. Some comedians are strictly in the entertainment business but many, like Colbert, embrace the opportunity to have a voice on the political stage. Through his characterisation Colbert delivers what left-wing viewers believe to be the ultimate takedown of right-wing politicians and journalists. How could anyone watching this not be convinced of the absurdity of the figures Colbert imitates?
Here we encounter the seeming paradox of The Colbert Report. The show, entirely premised on a mockery of conservative voices, was popular with conservative viewers. Heather LaMarre found that “no significant difference existed between conservatives and liberals regarding how funny Stephen Colbert was.” (2009, 226) This finding is both strange and rather concerning. When we watch President Bush squirm we feel that a point is being scored, that the President will be hurt and discredited. When we know that millions are laughing at a faux-conservative pundit, we think that this hurts real conservative pundits. How can people laugh at Colbert yet still identify with the beliefs he is mocking?
LaMarre found that viewers’ political ideology determined their perception of Colbert’s own ideology. When Colbert accuses left-wing journalists of being treacherous communists, left-wing viewers laugh at the absurdity of it, but right-wing viewers laugh because they know that Colbert really means it and the comedy allows him to get away with sticking it to the liberal elite (LaMarre et al, 2009). Colbert’s deadpan style, never breaking character and seemingly completely un-reflective, creates a level of ambiguity about his intention under which “biased processing is likely to occur” (2009, 216). It is not that right-wing viewers do not get the joke, it's that they think the “underlying meaning” (217) is insincere. The partisan message of the program is masked by comedy to the extent that it is seen as a vindication of the viewers’ own politics, whatever they may be.
Whilst this finding might be concerning to Stephen Colbert himself, it raises a wider question about the use of mockery and absurdity in political discourse. Many of us feel intuitively that laughter is a powerful political tool, that by ridiculing those who hold ridiculous positions, we expose them for what they are. Jonathan Coe, in his bleakly titled essay “Sinking Giggling into The Sea” (2013), argues that precisely the opposite is true. Not only does comedy obscure itsintended political message, but it marginalises and replaces political action.
Coe recalls Boris Johnson’s first ever appearance on Have I Got News For You in 1998 where regular Ian Hislop attacked Johnson for his involvement in a phone call where he had joked about beating up a journalist. Much like President Bush, Johnson squirms uncomfortably as his acceptance that the incident was a “major goof” (2013) fails to satisfy Hislop. As Hislop presses the point, Johnson attempts to deflect by recalling other details of the conversation, such as their discussion of “military heroes”. At this point the other regular, Paul Merton “interjects with the line: ‘Hence Major Goof that you mentioned just now.’” This joke is well-received by the audience, yet utterly diffuses the situation, negating the political point which Hislop was trying to make.
Coe is critical of the very presence of laughter in political discourse, calling laughter “a substitute for thought rather than its conduit” (2013) and believes that Johnson’s strategy of embracing his own buffoonery allows him to escape normal political criticism and has been key to his rise to power. This all seems a little too familiar with the rise of Donald Trump, whose first major appearance on the national political stage was at The White House Correspondents Dinner in 2012, where President Obama mocked him for igniting the so-called “Birther” movement. Much like with Colbert 6 years previously, the left-wing viewer sees a scathing take-down that leaves the target devoid of credibility. Perhaps others viewed this as the President’s acknowledgement that this was a serious political issue raised by a serious political figure. When then-candidate Trump appeared on Colbert’s new program, it could certainly be said that political discourse was sacrificed for laughter.
Watch Stephen Colbert at:
CNN Business, 2016. “Watch Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Corresponde…”. [online video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJ-a2KeyCAY
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, 2015. “Donald Trump Has Nothing To Apologize For” [online video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ns7ocpRhDD8
Adalian, J. (2018), “Late-Night Ratings: Stephen Colbert’s Lead Over Jimmy Fallon Is Bigger Than Ever”, Vulture.
Available at: http://www.vulture.com/2018/04/late-night-ratings-early-2018-colbert-fallon.html (Accessed 29/10/2018)
CBS New. (2015), “Stephen Colbert, for Real” CBS News.
Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/stephen-colbert-for-real/ (Accessed 29/10/2018)
Coe, J. (2013), “Sinking Giggling into the Sea. Review of The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson edited by Mount, H.” London Review of Books [Online] vol. 35 no. 14 pp. 30-31.
Available at https://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n14/jonathan-coe/sinking-giggling-into-the-sea (Accessed 29/10/2018)
LaMarre, H. L., Landreville, K. D. and Beam, M. A. (2009) ‘The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report’, The International Journal of Press/Politics, 14(2), pp. 212–231
White, E. (2018), “‘Outfoxed’ and Ideology”. The Juncture Review.
Available at: https://www.junctureuom.co.uk/blog/outfoxed-and-ideology (Accessed 29/10/2018)