Colbert’s zealous fans play his name game
Consider, if you will, the humble diving beetle. It’s not a particularly glamorous creature, with its six legs and hard exoskeleton. A living being further removed from the distractions of show business could not be found, or so you might think until you run across the name of one recently discovered species: Agaporomorphus colberti.
Yes, Stephen Colbert, the endlessly mocking and jibing host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” has a water beetle named after him.
And that’s just the start of it. Colbert -- French pronunciation, please, with a silent “t” -- has had his name slapped across all manner of random objects that have no obvious connection to him or his popular nightly show. Earlier this year, math geeks named the five remaining numbers of the Sierpinski Problem -- apparently an issue of great import to math geeks -- in his honor. A mascot for the Saginaw (Mich.) Spirit hockey team is called Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle.
Earlier this year, Colbert won a naming contest for a NASA space module, even though the agency later backtracked and named a treadmill on the International Space Station after him instead. Last year, Colbert petitioned successfully to have his portrait hung in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery (near the bathrooms, but still). At the corporate level, Ben & Jerry saluted Colbert with a new ice cream flavor. Virgin America, not wishing to be left stranded at the gate, named an A320 jet “Air Colbert.”
What does a celebrity have to do to get stuff named after himself these days? Just ask, it seems.
“I guess there is one episode where he was talking about wanting things named after him,” said Quentin Wheeler, a professor at Arizona State University and director of the International Institute of Species Exploration, who with a co-author named the beetle after Colbert. “And why not? He has a popular following, obviously.”
Actually, professor, to call it a “popular following” might be underselling the point. When Colbert speaks, his fans respond. And not in the typical watch-this, buy-that fashion. His followers go so much further. Members of the “Colbert Nation” are actually called to action, as if canvassing for a political campaign. They write letters. They vote. They do whatever their smarmy hero tells them to do, no matter how firmly his tongue is planted inside his cheek. Colbert has even built an entire segment around his fatuous character’s ironically self-obsessed quest for tribute: “Who’s Not Honoring Me Now?”
These days, even contestants on third-tier reality shows can cultivate rabid fan bases. More than 2 million people follow the Twitter posts of party girl Kim Kardashian, for example, who recently shared thoughts about such weighty topics as dental floss and her new Sam Edelman boots. But few stars can or actually do cajole their devotees to do things repeatedly in their name, even absurd, random things. In Colbert’s case, especially absurd, random things.
Thus “Colbert Report” is one of the primary movers in the shifting dynamic between celebrities and their constituencies.
“What makes the show entertaining is that Stephen has essentially made it interactive, where it’s not just us sitting and watching the show,” said DB Ferguson, a Dallas-based Colbert fan who runs the biggest fan site, nofactzone.net. “You don’t hear about ‘Daily Show’ fans going off and naming things after Jon Stewart. Stephen will say, ‘I want this named after me -- go, Nation!’ And inevitably, the fans will pick that up. It’s interactivity that makes the fans so passionate.”
But one interesting byproduct of the relationship is the philosophical question it raises: Are fans doing all this in the name of Colbert the real man or Colbert the character?
Colbert the man is the 45-year-old bespectacled, fastidiously groomed former improv comic and “Daily Show” correspondent. Colbert the character is a put-on, a caricature of a self-righteous right-wing blowhard a la Bill O’Reilly (whom Colbert calls “Papa Bear”). Stretching partisanship past the point of ridiculousness is a major part of “The Colbert Report’s” appeal, hence such Colbert queries as, “George W. Bush -- great president, or greatest president?” Earlier this month, in between goofs on the healthcare debate and Chicago’s Olympics loss, he dwelled on the news that terrorist suspect Najibullah Zazi had planned to make explosive devices from beauty products, warning, “Soon, a government bureaucrat will come between you and your stylist.”
But to Colbert the character, politics is almost beside the point, because no issue could possibly matter as much as he does. It really is all about him. This is why after he introduces a guest, he bolts from behind his anchor desk and jogs out to bask in the applause of the crowd, as if he can’t let someone else enjoy so much as a few seconds of token appreciation.
Thus Colbert’s naming fetish, which may strike a resonant chord in a nation where the rights to name taxpayer-supported sports arenas are auctioned off to the highest corporate bidders. The host has milked the concept since 2006, when he encouraged followers to vote in an online contest to rename a bridge in Budapest, Hungary. Colbert won with more than 17 million votes, although officials later pleaded that the comedian was ineligible for the honor because he was neither a speaker of Hungarian nor dead.
“It’s taking the absurdity of the host-viewer relationship to its illogical level, just as the show itself does in all other facets,” John Rash, an analyst for Minneapolis-based ad firm Campbell Mithun, said of the name game.
But although Colbert the character may be a total joke, fans’ devotion to him is not. Ferguson, the website organizer, said that she and other fans think it’s “hysterical” when Colbert wins naming contests and other tributes. But she pointed out that Colbert also has a serious, humanitarian side: For example, he has urged viewers to support donorschoose.org, an educational charity.
“People don’t go, ‘Oh, not funny, so I’m not gonna support it,’ ” she said. “They support it because Stephen said, ‘Do it.’ I think there’s a very interesting respect that the fans have for when Stephen asks for real things as opposed to funny things.”
What does Colbert think of all this? We asked for an interview, but his publicist declined the request without providing a reason.
However, Comedy Central president Michele Ganeless agreed to talk, and she pointed out that the blurring between the real man and the fake character is one of the things fans like best about the show. “Because Stephen’s a character on TV, versus Jon (Stewart) playing himself, it allows him to create all these layers of who he is,” she said. “Stephen has created in a sense a lot of games for his fans to play.”
Games, for instance, such as naming an obscure insect species after a fake talk-show host.
Wheeler, the ASU professor and beetle expert, said he’s a political conservative who isn’t a devoted follower of “Colbert Report,” although he does enjoy it when he tunes in. His real goal is to promote science and a greater awareness of biodiversity. Colbert happened to be a convenient means to that end, he said.
Noting Colbert’s Latinized name on the species classification, Wheeler added: “Two hundred years from now, people will have to deal with this, and they’ll say, ‘Who the hell was that?’ ”