On December 18th, the world lost a great performer. Stephen Colbert, the notorious pundit turned pistachio salesman, threw off the surly bonds of earth and etched his name among the stars. As the nation mourns the loss of this comedic titan, let us pause to reflect on the nature of his work and legacy.
“The truthiness is, all of those things people say I did¬–running for president, saving the Olympics, Colbert Super PAC, treadmill in space, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear and/or Cat Steven’s career–none of that was really me. You the nation did all of that. I just got paid for it.
This is the still-beating heart of what Stephen Colbert was able to achieve while pretending to be a conservative gasbag for nearly a decade. Colbert blurred the lines between comedy and political discourse, creating a character whose humor went beyond the limits of what late night comedy is normally capable of. “Stephen Colbert” became more important than The Colbert Report ever was.
So what was The Colbert Report? Was it comedic political discourse, entertainment, social critique, a social movement, or something else entirely?
Perhaps Colbert was all of those things. He was both the satirist as well as the target, he was the jester as well as the king. Colbert was about laughter–his character was constructed to amuse a very particular segment of the population who were aware of his ploy–but was also about instructing the audience through a sort of zealot-as-cautionary-tale. As the Economist points out, Colbert’s jokes were “aimed at people who would never watch Bill O’Reilly’s conservative rant of a cable news show on Fox, but who (recognized) Mr. Colbert’s obnoxious on-screen persona as a parody of Mr. O’Reilly because they have read about Mr. O’Reilly in the New Yorker.”
Over the course of the show’s run, Colbert’s character grew to a sizable influence—he was asked to entertain the president at the 2006 White House Correspondence Dinner. This was perhaps the zenith of Colbert the character, and he took the opportunity to offer scathing remarks about the Bush administration and the press corps’ coverage–all cleverly disguised in a veneer of praise.
The Colbert Report and its sister show The Daily Show put a finger on the ideological pulse of the millennial generation. Colloquial evidence suggests that many young adults tune in to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in order to receive the news. And the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear offer a concrete example of Stewart and Colbert’s power as a rallying point for a young generation to express concerns and opinions about social and political discourse. One of the most impactful moments came when Colbert created his own Super PAC, “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” highlighting the absurdities of campaign finance while informing the electorate.
Even so, the impact of both Stewart and Colbert is difficult to pin down. Their satire often attempted to embody an ethic of change, but because it is rooted in irony, they seemed to sometimes simply add to culture’s supply of institutional suspicion. Irony cannot replace political and ideological structures with anything more than itself. The purpose of irony is to dismantle and destroy; it can’t provide any meaningful replacement to that which it criticizes.
And Colbert never meant for his show to replace Fox News, CNN, or cable news in general. Instead it was a deliberate undermining meant to display the cracks in a broken system, subverting existing power structures to expose the flaws in its logic and methodology. His comedy was structured so that we would see the ridiculous in the ordinary, and question how we receive and make opinions. And this wasn’t done out of some altruistic motivation, but because it made money, and it was entertaining. But he did it in such a way as to throw into question how satire should be performed.
Is comedy always entertainment? We’ve been trained to think that humor is synonymous with entertainment, so a better question may be: Did we miss the point entirely of what Stephen Colbert was all about?
David Foster Wallace put his finger on the historical institutionalization of irony by arguing that irony fails to articulate a meaningful replacement of corrupt and broken power structures. When irony is the primary language of discourse, the inevitable result is a conversation that says nothing, goes nowhere, and can achieve no result. And yet Colbert produced results. Did Colbert go beyond irony into some yet-uncharted realm of comedic discourse? Colbert’s commitment to the character—his almost decade long performance—allowed him to influence other media outlets. By appearing on MSNBC, Fox News, and even in front of Congress as “Stephen Colbert,” he took the character far beyond the normative scope of a late night host’s influence
The fact that Colbert was a character allowed him to go beyond simple negation and suggest an alternative reality¬–albeit a one his character would abhor to inhabit. The real work of Colbert was to educate as well as undermine. Colbert’s appearances before Congress and on shows like Joe Scarborough’s Morning Joe suggest that sticking to his studio were not the point. He was in his element while on the offensive, and was able to explain the political system better than the reporters and hosts he sat in front of. His message landed with such accuracy precisely because it was rooted in humor.
From his first segment until the bitter end, Stephen Colbert was about revolution. His methodology and message remained consistent, and his effect so indelible that the word from his very first “The Word” segment was included as the Merriam-Webster word of the year. Rooted forever in truthiness, Colbert soldiered on until the day was his.
“I changed the world!”
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) December 19, 2014
Ultimately the legacy of Stephen Colbert’s show and character will be identified not only through the way he is received as host of The Late Show, but whether or not those who identify as fans pursue political engagement outside of his sphere of influence. If Stephen Colbert really taught us anything, then viewers and fans of his show will start to view demagogues as entertainers, lessening the impact that gasbagging pundits have in the future. Colbert is gone, but his legacy will remain strewn on our consciousness like the pistachio shells he endlessly peddled.
Thankfully, Stephen Colbert is survived by his best-known relative, Stephen Colbert.