Critic’s Notebook: The sun sets on Stephen Colbert’s sterling satire
In 2006, Stephen Colbert performed at the White House correspondent’s dinner. For almost 25 uncomfortably hilarious and immediately divisive minutes, Colbert performed as the titular character of his Comedy Central show, damning virtually all the attendees, including then-President George W. Bush, with praise faint and otherwise.
If neither the audience nor those covering the event knew exactly what had hit them, the millions who viewed the subsequently viral video did: Event planners thought they had invited a political comedian; what they got was America’s Satirist Laureate.
It was an easy mistake to make, particularly at the time. “The Colbert Report,” which comes to an end Dec. 18, was just beginning its nearly 10-year run. (Colbert will take over CBS’ “The Late Show” after its longtime host, David Letterman, retires next year.)
A spin-off of “The Daily Show,” which overtly deconstructs the hypocrisy, spin and blatant inaccuracies at work in politics and the media’s coverage of it, “The Colbert Report” took on the far trickier task of satirizing same. Tweaking the inappropriate obliviousness of his correspondent on “The Daily Show,” Colbert and his writers created a Bill O’Reilly-like commentator who, without any hint of guile, filtered the news through a prism of right-wing politics, self-righteous ignorance and complete narcissism.
The performance was so spot on that Colbert the performer quickly became virtually indistinguishable from his creation. For years, many viewers, and some guests, were not quite sure if “The Colbert Report” was a send-up of right-wing politics and the cult of personality or an example of it.
And that, of course, is the mark of truly brilliant satire: The baffled pause in which the audience is forced to think. About what is real, what is outrageous, and how often the two words refer to the same thing.
Is he really running for president and could he win? Is he really creating a super PAC, and is it actually legal to not disclose where campaign money comes from or how it is used? Did Daft Punk really last-minute ditch its appearance, forcing Colbert to put together an emergency song-of-the-summer video, and is that Henry Kissinger?
Comedy is tough, subversive satire is tougher, and sustained subversive satire is nearly impossible. To embody an object of ridicule that is itself a symbol of many larger themes requires a constant tension between opposing forces: sincerity and mockery, outrage and sentiment, wit and humanity.
Most great satire cloaks itself in other guises, running through classics as varied as Ovid, Austen, Dickens, Voltaire, Twain. Modern satirists like Vonnegut, Heller and Orwell grew less sentimental. Shows including “Laugh-In,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “MASH” brought political satire to television. Christopher Guest popularized the mockumentary that in turn gave us “The Office” and similar comedies. Garry Trudeau, certainly a fellow laureate, re-invented the cartoon; Matt Groening, Seth MacFarlane and others took the sensibility to television.
But no one has ever created a single character with both the continuity and elasticity of “The Report’s” Stephen Colbert, much less kept it going it for nearly a decade.
By its very nature, satire is stinging and people can tire of being, or watching others get, stung. But Colbert, like Charles Dickens (who hit many of the same points about politics, social divisions and the perils of ignorance) understands that the point of satire is not pain, it’s the desire for change. For the joke to really work, it has to start from a resting point of sincerity.
And no one on television is as sincere as Colbert. Unlike many modern performers, he does not approach his comedy as a wounded, jaded or discombobulated outsider.
Though he deals daily in the outrage, neither does he seem particularly angry. Geek culture may be generally ascendant, but it’s difficult to imagine another white, liberal, 50-year-old Elvish-speaking Southern fantasy geek with kids and a decades-long marriage who could be so openly devoted to both Catholicism and his mother while still hitting all those Power/Hot lists.
Yet there is no reason to believe that Colbert is not a genuinely nice guy.
Which is exactly why he’s been able to get away with one of the most scalding and significant satirical performances of this or any decade. Neither cruel nor kind, his performance was driven instead by the rare ability to harness passion without taking it personally.
No matter how off, convoluted or contradictory the screeds became, there was never the slightest gleam of viciousness, maliciousness or contempt in the performance. “The Report” could be brutal, but Colbert never was; the performer was happy to roll the character through the swamp of sanctimony and stupidity, to expose his toxicity, meanness as well as the environment in which they festered, but you sensed that, at some level, he loved him all the same.
It’s useless to speculate what Colbert and his team will bring to “The Late Show.” Under Letterman, “Late Night” has long been a dry and sardonic alternative to the celebratory showcase of “The Tonight Show,” but it’s not subversive and it’s certainly not satire.
Watching as Colbert recently interviewed Jennifer Lawrence, whom he introduced by reading what appeared to be her IMDB listing, it was difficult not to feel a pang. He may succeed in re-inventing the show, or even the genre, but there will never be another “The Colbert Report,” and it’s hard to say goodbye.
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