Stephen Colbert has had the best career a comedian could hope for, but for good reason. He is a monumental talent, has a serious work ethic, and happens to have good looks. He has gone from voice talent to "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," to his own show, and now he will go to "The Late Show" on CBS. For fans, we should remember that he is gaining, and we're not losing.
However, "The Colbert Report" is a special achievement in comedy. It is a rare, nearly magical act of performance, and I will miss it immeasurably when it is gone. Larry Wilmore's "The Minority Report" will be great, as Larry Wiltmore is himself superb at another particularly difficult type of humor, but I think it is alright if I now say why "The Colbert Report" will be, for a generation, a defining moment in political satire that cannot replicated.
For those of us who remember them, the first two seasons of "Saturday Night, Live" were revolutionary. It is impossible to tell a young person how unexpected Chevy Chase was as the local news anchor "caught" on a commercial break talking on the phone with his girlfriend, how brave it was that he played Gerald Ford falling down and petting a stuffed dog. In just such a way, though, it will be impossible later to explain why "The Colbert Report" was a perfect moment and a perfect performance -- lightning in a bottle that struck continuously for more than 1,300 episodes and nine years.
"The Daily Show" frequently employs parody and parodic satire. In particular, Jon Stewart's correspondents will pretend to be venial political hacks or dull witted "professional journalists," and they will report with exaggerated gravitas. Jon then offers questions to provide the satiric vision the audience needs. He, as the host, will stand in for the viewer to provide the set of normative values missing in Washington or network television, and the correspondents will act out the villainous point of view, but with a commitment to being overt rather than sly.
If you need an example of "The Daily Show"'s version of parody, consider this one.
Jason Jones speaks for Harry Reid's flexible point of view on Koches vs. Adelsteins, while Jon speaks for "us." He, therefore, acts as our spokesperson and hero. This is one reason why, when Jon Stewart interviews a rightwing guest and fails to hit hard or actually concedes ground, viewers get a bit upset. "Their" voice has been taken.
"The Colbert Report" is all the way different. Follow me below for a generic discussion of what the show has done, and why it is such a rare jewel.
"Parody" is a common word for us today, but it was not always thus. It did not enter English until Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, and its usage there does not make its meaning for Jonson altogether clear. The Renaissance stage was a time of satire and parody, but nothing like what the Restoration would unleash. It is perhaps therefore fitting that the next major witness to the word "parody" in the Oxford English Dictionary is John Dryden, in his "Preface" to his own translation of some Latin satires. His definition was not exactly accurate, though, as he implied that parodies were condemnations.
Here's the thing: "parody" did not mean what you think it means. As it came from Classical literature, it meant an imitation of style for humorous effect. "Parody" was not satirical. Think of Mozart imitating another composer's style for a brief riff. What's more, "parody" referred exclusively to poetry. The word could not be applied to prose.
English Restoration poets and playwrights did not need the word "parody" and thus did not use it. They called their satiric imitations "burlesques" and "lampoons" and just "satyrs." Even as they marked the high point of the mock-heroic, they had no consistent term for what they were doing.
The man who gave us "parody" for prose was Jonathan Swift. In "The Apology for the &c" at the outset of the fifth edition of A Tale of a Tub in 1705, Swift seems to speak in his own voice to the reader. He explains his 1701 book, and he dodges the criticism of bad writing by saying,
"There is one thing which the judicious Reader cannot but have observed, that some of those Passages in this Discourse, which appear most liable to Objection are what they call Parodies, where the Author personates the Style and Manner of other writers, whom he has a mind to expose."He then gives as an example a passage aiming at Dryden and Roger L'Estrange.
You see, Dryden had defined "parody" incorrectly (as being satirical), and so Swift satirizes (parodies) Dryden's definition of "parody" by defining "parody" as applying to prose satire and citing as an example an imitation of Dryden.
Swift's joke was a bit too hip for the room, but that's a risk that satirists always face.
I realize that few people who read this will have read A Tale of a Tub, but most people out on parole from American education will have read A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden on their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick" (1729), and some will have read Gulliver's Travels into several Remote Nations of the World (1727 and 1735). If I can, I would ask the charitable reader to fetch these back into memory and dismiss any pettifogging of instructors or the misery of footnotes to recall the works themselves.
Gulliver's Travels will not be dislodged from the canon any time soon, but things as "The Drapier Letters," "The Bickerstaffe Papers," "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.," and especially A Tale of a Tub disappear from the classroom. Most often, they're accused of being too hard. The sentences aren't too difficult. After all, Swift was a pioneer of direct style. Footnote fatigue is a legitimate reason to opt for a nice Robinson Crusoe instead, but at least as often "my readers simply can't figure out the author's point of view" is the complaint. As with the nifty trick Swift pulled when he parodied Dryden defining parody by defining parody with via Dryden, readers always feel as if they're missing something, and they can't be sure that the author intends what he says.
Swiftian satire is not only difficult, but rare for the simple reason that it requires a writer or performer to be nihilistic. The satirist has to show one evil, then another, and then still another, and pretend to endorse the worst elements of society and rely on human intelligence to pick out the game and, even worse, rely on human morality to figure out what should be done instead. Flannery O'Connor, oddly enough, is one of the few writers who is Swiftian in this regard. Her short stories team the feckless with the gormless, the con man and the cully, and the narrator never steps in to nudge us toward what should be right. (Her most anthologized short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1953), offers us a selfish hypocrite who has to lose her "religion" to be saved, a mother who has no brains, a father who has no intelligence, two devil children, and then an antagonist who stepped out of Camus's L'Etranger. If you, as a reader, like any of these characters, then you are being sinful.) Swiftian satire never provides the answers; it counts on a coterie of smart readers to understand.
The other thing that's difficult about parodic satire is that it means that a performer runs the risk of doing a better job of being bad than the bad people have. In fact, the passage from "An Apology for the &c." I quoted above was in response to the charge that Swift had, effectively, been dangerously hypocritical. Because parody means imitation, a genius will perform the imitation and play a game with the audience, always increasing the sophistication of the imitation, whether it's merely of style or also of rhetorical posture.
You may wonder why I haven't talked about "The Colbert Report," but I'm sure that you realize that everything I have just written about Swiftian satire applies.
Stephen Colbert, the television character, is a mask behind which Stephen Colbert the man cannot be indicted. We, the clever viewers, suspect that he is with us, and we have really good reasons for this, but the words he actually utters on television are neither our opposite nor ours. Stephen Colbert, the character, is absolutely earnest in saying that he wishes to not know the truth if it will make him unhappy (part of his presentation on "truthiness"), which was a reiteration of Jonathan Swift's own definition of happiness from A Tale of a Tub:
"The perpetual possession of being well deceived. . . the serene, Peaceful state of being a Fool among Knaves."When Stephen Colbert interviews left wing heroes, he imitates the far right and often presents a better set of questions than they themselves manage (such as the recent interview with Elizabeth Warren). More often, he simply asks the real questions that the right wing encodes in its "dog whistles". Thus, he will ask, outright, "Why should I care? I mean, I got mine Jack."
Colbert's satire is seamless. When he imitated the racists behind the Washington Redskins and offered to have the Ching-Chong Ding Dong Chinaman Foundation for Sensitivity or Whatever, he never let on. Even reacting to the reaction, he could be at a remove from the mask and within a mask.
We know, or we claim, Stephen Colbert as a liberal. We do this because satiric parody clues us by its failure. The key to interpreting it is in its exaggeration. Colbert imitates the evil and the crude and then simply exaggerates an element that is already present. The exaggeration will be along one axis or another, either the moral or the stylistic, and it will be so gross that the performance breaks. We can't take it seriously, because no moral, humane, educated person would be this way. By implication, then, no moral, humane, educated person would be like the persons he is imitating.
This is why Stephen Colbert is so effective, so dangerous, so difficult, and so rare. Whatever comes along after it will be of a different form, and it will be impossible to reproduce this rarest of satiric forms.