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Colbert Report. His suit is well-tailored and formal, his glasses thin and professional; he is staring at the camera with his piercingly intelligent eyes. But one ear is larger than the other, the lines on his face are too deeply serious to be actually serious, and his desk is a perverse mockery of the classic news desk. It is emblazoned with the word “Colbert” over and over again, in neon lights and LEDs and classic gold trim—it is even in the shape of a gigantic “C.” Colbert himself embodies a perverse mockery of a right-wing pundit. His righteous fury infuses almost every word, and he gestures as though only an idiot could disagree—even though his claims come out as wildly controversial. At this moment, he is discussing the format of his show, in his original segment entitled “Truthiness”: “Anyone can read the news to you; I promise to feel the news at you.” He lets the statement hang in the air a moment as the audience laughs, and as his eyes radiate with the seriousness of his promise. If you had the sound on mute, you might have thought that Stephen Colbert was honestly appealing to something beautiful in your heart. As much as you want to laugh at him, there is something compelling about him. He is a full human being embodying a stereotypical viewpoint—feeling the news, rather than reading it. The format of this segment (which Colbert described to Charlie Rose as “the thesis of the whole show”) and many later segments is taken from The O'Reilly Factor. On The Colbert Report, the segments are called “The Wørd,” and on The O'Reilly Factor, they're called “The Memo,” but the format is unmistakable: on the left side the host discusses his opinion, while on the right side a slide-show of bullet-points analyzes the argument. The difference, however, is in the content: on O'Reilly's show, the text backs up O'Reilly with facts and summaries of his arguments. On Colbert's, the text responds with counterpoints, often wittily undercutting Colbert
Yedwab 2 the character's arguments, and tying in other issues.
If content is closely related to form, the format of “The Wørd” might reveal something about the way satire operates on the show. The left side is one half of the satire: the host, Stephen Colbert the character. He embodies his conservative character, and argues on behalf of his character's positions. But as Stephen Colbert pushes farther and farther into the character, he pushes his character's logic farther than is actually comfortable. By taking the character to the logical extreme, he highlights flaws in the character's arguments, and the bad that might result from it. In one famous segment of “The Wørd,” he focused on Rosa Parks. Speaking of several deaths the day before, the segment began, “the greatest loss [yesterday] was of Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks, which brings us to tonight's Wørd: Overrated.” The audience responded as would be reasonably expected from a post-segregationalist audience: as though it had been hit in the gut. “Now don't get me wrong, don't get me wrong—hear me out!” he interrupted. His point, he hastened to explain, was not that Rosa Parks' fight against segregation of the bus system was overrated, but rather that, as he explains it, “America is a nation of laws.” In more reasonable tones, he continues, that despite her noble cause, the choice of civil disobedience is a wrong one for America—after all, a nation where anyone can choose what laws to obey becomes an anarchy. But just as his argument returns to being a reasonable discussion of the role of law in our society, he reaches his conclusion: “So, tonight, let me be the first—the Rosa Parks, if you will—of saying to those malcontents out there, the best way to change the system is to wait 'til it changes.” The target of the satire was not, after all, Rosa Parks. By embodying the opinion which
Yedwab 3 Colbert the artist might assume a Law and Order extremist might hold toward Rosa Parks, he is examining not one historical instance of civil disobedience but rather the idea of civil disobedience itself. When he refers to “those malcontents,” he is addressing his audience, most of which is discontented with the current government. But his audience is not engaged in civil disobedience: rather, the most they are doing is sitting and watching TV. They are waiting for the system to change, and they are the real target of his satire. One common criticism of The Colbert Report is that it is overly cynical, embittering their audience and removing them from the political process. But here, as well as many other points during each show, the satire swings around and catches the audience. Some points of his segment are extremely absurd, such as his contention that Rosa Parks should have started her own bus company, and “let the free market do what it does best: enfranchise the disenfranchised.” Other points of the segment seem perfectly reasonable, such as his theoretical position on Law and Order, with which many in this country agree. But there is one single thread of logic between them, and the audience is forced to ask itself: Where do his valid points begin and where do they end? Was there something different in the 1960s, and if so, what is it and why is it different? Colbert's logic raises questions and disturbs the audience because it is rooted in their beliefs but it bears disturbing fruit. Because the character is a theoretical debate embodied, and because they are watching the character willingly, they have a harder time dismissing it and pretending that there is that difference. He embodies all of the logical fallacies within ourselves and within politics—he embodies all of the complexities of the issue, rather than reducing it and flattening it to a two-dimensional stereotype. Alain de Botton addresses the issue in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, saying, “The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather they are
Yedwab 4 superficial articulations of very good ones. They insulate us from expressing our real emotions.” If Stephen Colbert was merely presenting the audience with clichés, he would be continuing to insulate us from expressing our real emotions. But the audience's reactions usually betray a deeper engagement with the clichés: they are not laughing because they are seeing the same stereotypes the have often seen. There is an element of surprise, a laugh or groan of discovery, which cuts to the audience's real emotions, and the real ideas. Although Colbert's material is built on conservative stereotypes (the invisible hand of the market or America as a nation of laws), he is not just presenting the stereotypes; something more is going on. Director Anne Bogart commented on clichés as well, in her essay “Stereotype”, saying (in the context of director Tadaki Suzuki's work with an actress named Shiraishi): “'Fuelled by the fire [Suzuki] lit under her... the clichés and stereotypes would transform into authentic, personal, expressive moments...” (Bogart 93). The transformation Bogart describes is the transformation from flat stereotype to full human complexity, which is what brings newness and discovery into the work. This is what Stephen Colbert does by embodying the stereotypical conservative anchor; he embodies separate conservative viewpoints in one human vessel, and the ways in which they interact is what makes them human. By using the stereotype of Rosa Parks as a hero to light a fire under the stereotype of America as a nation of laws, he brings back the full complexity to the issue. America is a nation of laws, yes, but it was in fact created in violation of laws—through Revolution—and is often renewed through civil disobedience. Yet, on the other hand, the new nation was created based on laws, so that individual people would not seize power —that is the lesson of the Constitution. There is no single cliché that can fully explain our country; any of the above clichés would be a “superficial articulation” of the good idea that is our country, and Stephen's tortured logic illustrates exactly what is superficial in that articulation.
Yedwab 5 George Orwell, in his book 1984, created a term “doublethink,” to describe two contradictory viewpoints held in the mind at the same time without acknowledging the contradiction. But when Stephen Colbert links disparate stereotypes and throws them into opposition, he does not “doublethink” them; rather, he throws them into a dialectical conversation, fleshing each out as he examines them. That is precisely what Colbert's character, as a human being, must do: reconcile various seemingly contradictory positions before our very eyes, to help us reconcile them. And that is also precisely how the audience should be thinking: it should be taking each new idea and throwing it into conversation with the old ones, allowing each idea to converse with one another. That is why it is important that Stephen Colbert embodies the position of the people he satirizes rather than, as Jon Stewart on The Daily Show does, merely mocking them. Rather than distancing from the different viewpoints, he tries to embrace them all, and bring them into conversation—rather like an essay. So clearly, a good satire does precisely that: brings complexity and life into a previously two-dimensional issue, so that we can see the human embodiment of various issues to fuel our own thinking.
But if we look at the format of “The Wørd,” we'll see that embodiment is not the only element operating in Stephen Colbert's satire. The embodied character only takes up half the screen. The other half of the screen is taken by a projection of bullet point commentary, snarkily pointing out the flaws in Stephen the character's arguments. Isn't that redundant to the satire, returning it back to the unsubtle cudgel of stereotypical satire? The bullet-point straight-forward sarcasm seems to be outright commentary, more reminiscent of Jon Stewart's style than that of Stephen Colbert; but though the two satirists seem
Yedwab 6 to have absolutely different styles, the many years that Colbert worked with Stewart on The Daily Show influenced much of his thought on political satire. Michael Barthel, in his culture blog clapclap.org, sees the difference clearly. Contrasting The Colbert Report with The Daily Show, he says that on The Daily Show, when correspondents embody the points of view they are mocking, Jon Stewart provides a counterpoint, a “we are sanity” feeling. “Stewart plays the straight man and asks them the questions we ourselves would ask...making the correspondent into the object of ridicule before our eyes.” Barthel sees Stewart as the alienated, cynical observer commenting on the events and ideas, rather than the embodied, involved correspondent. Barthel's view is backed up by Stephen Colbert, when he spoke candidly on the Charlie Rose show. When he described the differences in their shows, he said: “Jon may point out the hypocrisy happening in the news story... I illustrate the hypocrisy in the news story [in my character].” During Colbert's time on The Daily Show, he played that same embodying character, and Stewart still played the alienated observer. So when he got his own show why did he decide to leave that alienated part of the satire in the format? What does alienated observation add to political satire that the embodiment does not touch? One of the foremost advocates of alienated performance is the playwright-director Bertold Brecht, who in the mid-century believed that a new sort of theatre would be required to affect the public. He outlines his new form of acting required for that theatre in an essay entitled “Alienation Effects In Chinese Acting.” He says that the performer's “artful and artistic act of self-alienation, stopped the spectator from losing himself in the character completely...the audience identifies itself with the actor as being an observer, and accordingly develops his attitude of looking on” (Brecht 93).
Yedwab 7 In “The Modern Theatre Is The Epic Theatre,” he discussed the differences between his own alienated approach to theatre, and the traditional approach to theatre. In the usual, Aristotlean, embodied theatre, a play “implicates the spectator in a stage situation...and wears down his capacity for action,” by appealing straight to “feeling” (Brecht 37). On the other hand, his alienated theatre “turns the spectator into an observer but...arouses his capacity for action...forces him to take decisions...[and] face something” by appealing straight to “reason” (Brecht 37). So Brecht's fear was that Aristotlean embodiment would draw the audience in, and limit their ability to rationally judge the arguments. If that is true, then it would mean fearful things about The Colbert Report, because an unquestioning audience would simply accept the deliberately absurd and negative modes of thinking that Stephen Colbert presents. Imagine, for instance, an audience agreeing with the fact that “the best way to change the system is to wait 'til it changes.” Unfortunately, at times, the element of satire does completely pass over the heads of the audiences. Barthel describes how “the laughs didn't really come at first. If you watch those early programs, people don't really get it: jokes fall flat, and guests seem genuinely outraged at the things Colbert is saying, even though they're on a network called 'Comedy Central'.” In fact, during the scandal surrounding Tom DeLay, one of his supporter groups used clips from The Colbert Report to highlight some of his “positive points,” despite the fact that Colbert's segment had actually been a tongue-in-cheek attack. But these seem to be exceptions which prove the rule. In the single most infamous moment of Stephen Colbert's career, there was nobody who seemed to miss the 'joke.' At the 2006 Press Correspondent's Dinner, Stephen Colbert took the podium to spend his half-hour “defending” the President, who was his “favorite person.” Almost every single line was a biting
Yedwab 8 criticism of the President and his administration, veiled in false praise. From the pans over the audience by the C-SPAN cameras, people knew exactly what was happening. Neva Chonin, at the San Francisco Chronicle, described it by saying: “George W. Bush was, in fact... listening to [Colbert] eviscerate his administration on live television. I wasn't just watching a comic's routine; I was witnessing courage incarnate.” The article Neva Chonin was writing was entitled “Truthiness To Power,” and in it she called for “a few more Colberts.” She harkened back to a time where “it was a court jester's privilege to tell the emperor he had no clothes on and then to escape with his head.” To Neva Chonin and many Americans like her, the satire was not only noticeable, but it was powerful and inspirational. Clearly, if Stephen Colbert's satire is embodiment, then embodiment packs a lot more of a punch than Brecht's alienation, in the way Jon Stewart represents it. But then again, would Brecht's theories of alienation completely disagree with Stephen Colbert? After all, he once said that “The artist's object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and at his work” (Brecht 92). He adds later, “[the actor] is careful not to make [his] sensations into those of the spectator. Nobody gets raped by the individual he portrays...” (Brecht 93). From that perspective, Colbert is a classic example of alienation. If he simply portrayed his right-wing pundit, then the satire would be much more invisible. But in the act of driving his argument beyond what any rational person would dare to speak, he makes his viewpoints seem “strange and even surprising to the audience” (Brecht 92). So if Colbert can actually be looked at as an alienated performer, Jon Stewart cannot be entirely fit into the box of Brechtian alienation. When Barthel described Jon Stewart as “ask[ing] them the questions we ourselves would ask...” he is describing a character that we empathize
Yedwab 9 with—in short, Aristotlean embodiment of our own cynicism and doubts about the insanity which is embodied by the correspondent across from him. We believe wholly in Jon Stewart's honest-citizen persona, and through his eyes we examine critically the world of the self-involved correspondents. Contrast this with Stephen Colbert as the Press Correspondent's Dinner, for example when Stephen Colbert said, “The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will.” Again, he starts with a common idea about the president—this time, his unwavering convictions of what is 'right'—and takes it to a degree which is suddenly absurd, and beyond empathy or sympathy. In one moment, the character has alienated itself from the audience, and from its supposed allies—and through his “closeness” to the president, alienates the president from the audience and his supposed allies.
To attempt to classify The Colbert Report and Stephen Colbert's work as Aristotlean or Brechtian would be to flatten his approach, to reduce it to a stereotype. It would be a “superficial articulation” of the power of Stephen's show. As we see in each “The Wørd” segment, both theatrical approaches are thrown into opposition, and each one “lights a fire” under the other, to create a growing complexity. In one of the more effective “The Wørd” segments entitled “Back Off, Old Man!”, again the two were used to complicate each other. The topic at hand was a TIME Magazine article which alleged that the elder George Bush was trying to correct mistakes in the younger Bush's administration through various experts he knew. Stephen Colbert began the segment angrily, saying, “Well on behalf of the President, and all sons everywhere, I'd like to say
Yedwab 10 something to the dads we can never seem to please, and it's tonight's Wørd: Back Off, Old Man!” From there, he embodied the imagined diatribe of a son against his father, saying that he was sorry he never lived up to his father's expectations but he needs to live his own life. As the beginning indicated, the issue is universal, and for once, Stephen Colbert does not cross any lines, saying nothing that would suddenly become absurd. But now we see the bullet points in action. Every single sentence that Stephen Colbert says reasonably is paired up with a bullet point that highlights the intense absurdity of his statement. When Stephen Colbert says, “I don't live by your rules!” the bullet point replies, “Like Geneva Conventions,” and when Stephen Colbert says, “So don't try to put me into a little box!” the bullet point replies, “Little box Strictly for Detainees.” The most painful part of the segment is when Stephen Colbert says, “I may have made mistakes, but they're my mistakes, and I have paid the consequences,” the bullet point responds, “Along with the troops.” Stephen Colbert seems to bring humanity to the President—a son trying to prove himself to his father. But the bullet point keeps reminding the viewer about the consequences of those actions: there is no way to treat Iraq lightly without remembering how many people die every time we make a mistake. Thus, the format of “The Wørd” resembles the show at large. The cynical bullet point pulls us out of sympathizing with Colbert, and allows us to analyze him, but it is Colbert's humanity which keeps us engaged and stops us from dismissing him off-hand. Colbert himself said to Charlie Rose that even though he is a comedian taking on various political figures he “is not an assassin” and he does not want to “dismiss anyone's positions offhand.” The humanity Colbert brings to the character strains against the cynicism the bullet points brings; each lights a fire under the other and makes the issues more complex. There is a dialectic being formed between Aristotle's belief in affecting the audience
Yedwab 11 emotionally, and Brecht's desire to appeal to reason. In fact, those two viewpoints are in themselves stereotypes; neither ever truly intended a theatrical approach without the other, as evinced by essays late In Brecht's life which spoke of a “dialectical theatre” which would incorporate alienation with other elements of theatre. Both stereotyped theatrical views, because of the superficiality of their articulation, have flaws when presented on their own. As Brecht rightly points out, an emotional and empathetic approach can “produce hypnosis...[or] induce sordid intoxication” (Brecht 38). A hypnotized audience would be unable to comment politically; it would simply watch, and then go on with its life as its hypnosis passed. But as Barthel points out, the danger of a too detached, too removed audience would simply be a cynical rejection of politics. Either extreme results in an audience which has no involvement in the political sphere. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have both repeatedly spoken of their want as citizens to be engaged in the political process and continue to work for its betterment—that is at the heart of their desire to be political satirists. They attempt to influence society for its betterment by trying to train a more attentive viewing public. Brecht himself, at a certain point, describes his own goals in theatre by saying that he wanted an audience that “identifies itself with the actor as being the observer, and accordingly identifies his attitude of observing or looking on” (Brecht 93). Brecht wants the actor to model the audience's relation to what is being portrayed. If Colbert is using his show to train the audience, what does the format reveal about the audience he is training? The Brechtian elements prevent the audience from being sucked in to the emotion, but the Aristotelean empathy prevents the audience from becoming too cynically detached, and forgetting the importance of humanity in politics—the way some of his satirical targets have. Through Brechtian detachment, we are able to be critical and think for ourselves,
Yedwab 12 but through Aristotelean attachment we are always remembering why that criticism and thinking is important. Colbert is training an audience that cares, but not blindly; an audience that thinks, but not amorally.
Yedwab 13 Works Cited Barthel, Michael. "Everyone's A Cynic." Editorial. clap.clap.org 8 Mar. 2007. Bogart, Anne. A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theater. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973. Brecht, Bertold. Brecht On Theatre. New York: Hill And Wang, 1964. Chonin, Neva. "Truthiness To Power." Editorial. San Francisco Chronicle 7 May 2006: PK-18. Colbert, Dr. Stephen T. Press Correspondent's Dinner, Washington D.C. 29 Apr. 2006. The Daily Show. Comedy Central. 1 Jan. 2007. De Botton, Alain. How Proust Can Change Your Life. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006. Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classics, 2007. "The Word: Back Off, Old Man!" The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 13 Nov. 2006. "The Word: Overrated." The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. "The Word: Truthiness." The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 17 Oct. 2005.