Welcome Sophia McClennen (SophiaMcClennen.com) and Host Remy Maisel (HuffingtonPost)

Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy

It’s 11:30 on a Wednesday night, and it’s been a long day. The debates last night were god-awful to watch, no matter which candidate you support. The media are already working to spin the performances, but you can’t help but feel that if either candidate is said to have won, based on his words or on a scientific — well, scientif-ish – analysis of his facial expressions and body language, it isn’t Obama or Romney who lost. America lost. So, you sit heavily in your armchair and turn on the TV. “Tonight!” yells an exuberant Stephen Colbert before giving the audience a rundown of the day’s stories, he descends through a cloud of words and plants Old Glory into a dais, before a bald eagle – the freest of all the birds – screeches a greeting. “Nation,” he begins, happily tossing a pen into the air and waiting for the audience to stop cheering.

You relax into your laughter, forgetting about the guy who parked so close to you that you couldn’t open your car door easily, forcing you to hold your coffee mug against your chest while you squeezed out and leaving a coffee stain on your white shirt right before a meeting with the senior partner. You forget about Chris Matthews’ latest scotch-soaked meltdown. It’s like an upscale antidepressant, or a potent drink. You feel better. You may feel a pang of indignant anger when one of Colbert’s satirical points lands home – “Yeah! Why aren’t the Republicans supporting that jobs bill if the economy is so important to them?” – but you are barely motivated to climb up to bed after Colbert say goodnight, let alone being motivated to become a better citizen. Tomorrow is another day, and even the funniest jokes on the Report will be like a fingerprint on a doorknob – they made the ghost of an impression on you, but will have new thoughts pressed over them until they are obscured entirely. That’s all for the show, folks. Goodnight!

Or is that all? Does every episode of The Colbert Report exist only from 11:30-midnight, as ephemeral as a rainbow that made you smile, but which faded from the sky and from your mind? Or is it something more?

Since The Colbert Report aired in 2005 and grew into a critically acclaimed show with Peabodys, Emmys, and a loyal nation to attest to its genius, many have pointed to some exploits both of Stephen Colbert’s and the audience’s as evidence that The Colbert Report is much more than a comedy show. In Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy, Sophia McClennen, a professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Penn State, makes such an argument in way that is supremely readable, immensely fun, and terrifically informative. Using many specific examples to illustrate her thesis that the show fosters creative thinking, encourages active citizenship, and entertains the viewer all at once.

With a focus on how the media has changed in the aftermath of 9/11, Sophia analyzes the impact of Colbert’s sharp satire on both those who take part in political action and those who report on it. Sophia became interested in Colbert’s use of satirical language in a way that is both biting and fun upon seeing Colbert’s performance at the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner, and highlights the show’s “Better Know a District” segment as well as Colbert’s foray into civic action, bolstering her argument with connections to other interactive fan assignments that the show has made, including things like the green screen challenge, which asked viewers to give green screen footage of Colbert with a lightsaber a digital background, and various naming contests which the Colbert Nation has won for the Dear Leader.

Despite the Report’s uniquely clever blending of education and entertainment, critics say that it’s only a TV show, and Stephen Colbert is only a comedian, albeit a very funny one, and so there is no use studying the show. Others decry Colbert’s repeated statements that he does not set out to evoke the kinds of reactions fans have had to the show, has been constantly surprised by the dedication of the Colbert Nation, and certainly isn’t a political activist, saying that it is impossible that he does not have a clear agenda. Others might argue that accusing Colbert of having an agenda is merely a projection of the accuser’s own methods.

What do you think? Is The Colbert Report a worthy topic of study? Does the show have an influence, and, if so, is it important?

 

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

141 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Sophia McClennen, Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy”

BevW October 20th, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Sophia, Remy, Welcome to the Lake.

Remy, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

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Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Glad to be here!

dakine01 October 20th, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Good afternoon Sophia and Remy and welcome to FDL this afternoon.

Sophia I have not read your book so forgive me if you cover this but doesn’t it say something not very good about our society that the folks who watch a supposed comedy show such as Colbert Report (and The Daily Show) are often better informed than those folks who watch mainly Traditional Media outlets for their news?

Is the better informed aspect a product of the info provided or are the viewers better informed in general prior to tuning in to Colbert?

Elliott October 20th, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Hi, thank you for writing the book.

Of course Colbert report is worth study.

And he most definitely has influence, hopefully he has influenced a whole generation of kids to start thinking for themselves re politics. And to start looking past the professional spinmeisters.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Hi everyone, thanks for joining us!

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:02 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 3

That is a great question. We now have statistics that show that people who watch only The Daily Show or only The Colbert Report know more than those that watch CNN or Fox.

Actually it is not an indictment of our society–but rather of what has happened to news media in the cable era. Should I explain more?

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:04 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 3

Great question! Let’s jump right in. Sophia, can you speak to the studies you mention that have discussed how knowledgable Colbert’s audience is as compared to, say, Fox’s audience?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:04 pm
In response to Elliott @ 4

I agree!

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Yes, please elaborate on that.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:06 pm

What happens in the cable era is that news is not competing only against other news shows. You can watch CBS or watch Baywatch, for instance. The competition for viewers radically shifts news more towards entertainment to compete. And before you know it, you have news that feels like nothing more than spectacle.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Is it necessarily negative that news and entertainment are becoming so immeshed? Is it better to stick to the traditional ideal of an unbiased journalist, and maintaining the divide between journalism and opinion as well as between news and entertainment?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

More?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:11 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 11

It really is not a question today of going backwards to the Cronkite era. That just is not going to happen. The role of entertainment in TV news is here for the long haul. BUT that does not mean that we can’t look for news that honest and accurate. And it does nor mean that we should not worry when viewers get fed more opinion than facts from which to draw their own opinions.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Yes–I think your distinction between Colbert or Stewart’s ability to straddle the line between entertainment and information and various others’ attempts to do the same is interesting. Can you talk about what the difference is, and why it is ok that Comedy Central does this?

Suzanne October 20th, 2012 at 2:12 pm

welcome! sophia, i just started reading this book so forgive me if you answer this in it but do you think that colbert’s satire can help change the way the nation thinks about politics (so many think politics are boring)?

BevW October 20th, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Please feel free to expand on your answers.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Additionally, Sophia, what do you think about the fact that viewers don’t always know how the ‘real’ Stephen Colbert feels? Is that a problem?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:14 pm

I insist –along with both Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart–that there IS a difference between a show on Comedy Central and one on CNN. If we watch comedy and get smarter about the world in the process, that is great, but that is not their main task. So we do need to make sure to hold on to a line between Colbert and the pundits he parodies.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:14 pm
In response to Suzanne @ 15

Great question, Suzanne! Sophia, your general opinion seems to be that Colbert indeed changes how the nation thinks about politics–what are some illustrative examples of this?

emptywheel October 20th, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Sophia

I’ve barely cracked your book (unexpected move in process!), but as a PhD in CompLit I’m curious how your book fits into the discipline.

I did a lot of work on earlier pop texts that were arguably under-appreciated for their role in politics (like Count of Monte Cristo), and note that this is not primarily a cultural studies book.

Where does it fit in the discipline and to what degree are you trying to convince academics rather than political people (who I think know the role Colbert and Stewart play)?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:16 pm
In response to Suzanne @ 15

Yes–The last chapter is called “amusing ourselves to activism”. The main idea is that he has created an idea of citizenship that is both politically powerful and fun. he has played a major role in reaching out to his young viewers and giving them a sense of empowerment. The generation that watches his show votes at a rate of 66%–whereas previous generations vote at a rate of 50%. That is exciting!

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:18 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 17

Yes–that adds a layer of complexity that does not exist for Stewart–and it does leave more ambiguity for the impact of Colbert’s show. Research suggests that right wing viewers think he REALLY is right wing. So that is a risk–but one could argue that the nature of in-character satire produces a higher order of critical thinking. So those who do “get it” really get it.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:19 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 20

Another great question; Sophia, can you discuss the response to your book and who has been supportive of the study of TCR, as well as where most of the criticism originates?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:20 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 20

Great question!! I am not sure I have convinced comp lit that this is a worthy project at all. But I believe that looking at how culture, politics, and society intersect is a valid critical project for comp lit. I also think that it is useful to work on books that reach beyond the discipline and use plain accessible language. And hopefully my book can be a model of how to do some of that.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:23 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 19

One great example was the way Colbert used twitter to mobilize his audience to mock Jon Kyl (Senator, R AZ) when he misrepresented Planned Parenthood on the Senate Floor. He introduced the hashtag #notintendedtobeafacutalstatement. It went totally viral–with over 1 million tweets an hour within the first day.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:24 pm

I’m interested in media characterization of academic pursuits related to Colbert as being frivolous; a sign that academics in their ivory towers are so divorced from what is important that here we are, studying a silly TV show. Sophia, why do you think some people have had frosty reactions to your book, or the idea of seminars and textbooks about TCR in general, especially considering how much attention the very same media awards to Stephen Colbert and his satirical pursuits?

Suzanne October 20th, 2012 at 2:24 pm

sweet! thank you. i have to add this book is a pleasure to read — i highly recommend it. do you think that colbert will have you on his show to talk about colbert?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:24 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 23

I think that the strongest support within the academic world comes from communications studies.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:25 pm

I would agree that this is a great example. What is your response to those who might say that tweeting #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement, while funny, isn’t important, because tweets don’t translate to measurable change?

bluewombat October 20th, 2012 at 2:27 pm

As long as I live, I will never forget Colbert’s performance at the National Press Club dinner (I think it was) during the Bush Regime. He was like one of Shakespeare’s jesters, a Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Or, given the state of the DC press corps, Daniel in the Wusses’ Dean. But it was still gutsy of him to do what he did, and it’s understandable that they never invited him back.

Of course he deserves a book-length study.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:27 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 26

At a broad level this is connected to right-wing assaults on higher ed that suggest that any work in the humanities is a waste of time (at best) and indoctrination (at worst). I think they use the example of a book like this or a course on the show as proof that we are frivolous and don’t teach anything of value. But, of course, that makes no sense, since it makes sense to teach a phenomenon that is having such a tremendous social impact so that we can understand it better.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:27 pm

And the strongest criticism? I recall an interview with Farhi from the Washington Post that read as being critical.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:28 pm
In response to Suzanne @ 27

Sadly, I think he won’t. He has made it clear that he wants to keep distance between himself and the people that study him. He suggests that it would cause him to get too much into his head.

marymccurnin October 20th, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Colbert’s roasting of the Bush administration was important and funny, too. It took mucho courage to do that.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:30 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 29

It is a common critique–but it would apply to all satire. Satire exposes folly. Colbert has done more than that, though. He gets his audience to do things –and some would argue that that is where real politics begins.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:31 pm
In response to bluewombat @ 30

Watching that performance was what made me think about writing this book!

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Interesting–comments like Rick Santorum’s “What a snob!” reaction to Obama’s statement that everyone should be able to receive higher education spring to mind. Any criticism from people who are generally pretty liberal themselves, or otherwise unlikely to subscribe to that kind of thinking?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:32 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 32

Well yes–there was a piece in the Washington Post that made the whole thing seem stupid. But I also have a pack of colleagues that think the project is stupid too.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:33 pm
In response to marymccurnin @ 34

I agree. I think of it as the most courageous performance of the Bush years.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:33 pm
In response to marymccurnin @ 34

I agree. In fact, many people speak about the courage it must have taken to roast the sitting president while standing mere feet away–yet, Colbert always insists that he didn’t see it as a courageous act. What do you think of his comments about the experience, Sophia, and how they relate to his perception of his own influence?

Peterr October 20th, 2012 at 2:34 pm

I’m a Lutheran pastor, and you had me at the title of the opening chapter: “I Stand By This Man: Speaking Truthiness to Power”

For Colbert to be successful, he not only has to understand that which he targets with his mockery, but his audience has to understand it as well. As they say, if you have to explain your joke, you’ve failed. In this case, the “speaking truth to power” is given a real twist.

Far from dumbing down television, satire like Colbert’s demands and encourages intelligence.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:35 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 37

Yes–I think the critique there is on the value of studying something taking place in the present, on tv, and in pop culture. Generally those critiques stem from scholars who worry that higher ed will stop teaching history, art, literature, etc. But I do not see these things are oppositional.

marymccurnin October 20th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

It actually took me awhile to understand and appreciate Colbert.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

One might imagine that nothing would better inflate the character’s ego than a chance to interview a guest about a book about himself–yet, it would be difficult to conduct such an interview without openly acknowledging the character’s existence. Al Gore’s “Your character…” slip in a fairly recent interview remains, I think, the most obvious example of the fourth wall collapsing. What do you think, though, of the increase in character breaks, etc. that we have seen in recent months as opposed to the rigidity of the character early in the show?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:37 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 40

This is a great question–Colbert always plays the whole thing down. Says he did not think it would be a big deal. But we know he is extremely proud of the event. He even printed the full transcript at the end of his first book, I am America.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:38 pm
In response to Peterr @ 41

You are right! And the version of an in-character performance requires even more critical thinking. The ability to get the joke already requires the audience to engage in higher order reasoning.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:39 pm
In response to Peterr @ 41

I certainly agree. Colbert seems to hold his audience in high esteem. He makes esoteric and intelligent references, and has a Latin motto, and seems either to believe that his audience will get it, look it up, or get the gist of any of these jokes. What do you think about Colbert’s expectations of and evident respect for his audience, Sophia, and how does that affect the audience’s relationship with the show and willingness to play along?

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I see Colbert’s the Correspondence show as his highlight of truth to power.

In general, I think him and Jon and others actually do harm to righting the wrongs..

As their humor diffuses our anger and nothing is ever done in the face of injustice and evil.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:40 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 44

Those breaks are what gives me hope! But yes–I wonder too at the increasing breaks. I think they may reveal the fact that Colbert is trying to evolve the persona. He is very savvy so he is surely aware of the impact. Most often the audience loves it when they get to see the man behind the mask.

bluewombat October 20th, 2012 at 2:41 pm

That makes perfect sense — when you have an extraordinary cultural moment like that, it’s natural to have a host of questions spring to mind: Who is this guy? How difficult was it for him to do this? How could the press club screw up and hire him? What does his performance and the response to it say about the state of the national press corps?

I wish you every success with your book.

(P.S.: My God, is Palgrave McMillan really charging $85 for the hardcover, as I just saw on Amazon? That can’t be good for sales.)

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:42 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 47

In an early interview with Terry Gross Colbert spoke about the way the show pronounces Report without the hard T. He mentioned that the idea behind the show was a rapport–and that the pronunciation of Report to sound like rapport suited his idea of the connection between his character and the show. I think that insight says a lot about how he feels about his fans.

Peterr October 20th, 2012 at 2:43 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 47

Part of that is his character, who is obviously superior to everyone in the room. Thus, to the extent that an audience member doesn’t get it, it plays into the meta-joke of Colbert’s supreme importance in the world.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:44 pm
In response to Ready @ 48

Interesting–much of the criticism from the progressive faction (read: left of the Democratic Party) says that it encourages people to be lazy, as they can watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report and scoff at the injustices, and feel as if they have done something without having to organize a direct action. What do you think, Sophia? Does this effect outweigh the counterexamples that other viewers have provided, say, by starting a super PAC themselves (which I have done)?

dakine01 October 20th, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Could a show like Colbert Report actually ever appear on the conventional TradMedia networks?

As I show my age, I am thinking of the troubles and how shows like the Smothers Brothers and That Was the Week That Was had such short runs (relatively speaking)

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:45 pm

I agree. In fact, at the discussion with Ken Burns at 92Y last night, he commented that he is allowing the fun he is having to show through more.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:45 pm
In response to Ready @ 48

This is a valid concern and it has been aired recently in a well circulated op ed that made the same claim. The ideas is that the laughter defuses political action.

But I think that argument misses a key point–this is a comedy that is very much engaged in political activism. Colbert has rallied on the mall, testified before Congress, started a Super PAC and run for President. These are all signs of a different sort of political satire–a version of which we have not ever seen before in our history.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:47 pm
In response to bluewombat @ 50

The hardback cost is outrageous but luckily you can get the book on kindle or in paper for less than $20.

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 2:47 pm

I think the rally on the mall was way off as far as political action.

People were there to have fun.

People weren’t there with a burning fire in their hearts to change our society.

Dearie October 20th, 2012 at 2:50 pm

blue@50: where did you see that? I just saw “list price $25…… now $19.95…….”

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:50 pm
In response to Ready @ 58

Are those mutually exclusive? I don’t think so. Also, I’d say that events like Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Love” arguably had no more of an impact. People perhaps were there out of a burning desire to change something about our society–which I’d argue is true of the audience at the Rally ro Restore Sanity, where the audience echoed Jon Stewart’s “take it down a notch” sentiment–but I haven’t heard of any major legislative changes or actions or impact at all having resulted from it.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:51 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 54

The shows you mention are important precursors to the sort of comedy Colbert is doing. I don’t think he would do well to move off of Comedy Central–but he has had his own share of concerns with Viacom. The difference between his show and the Smothers Brothers is that the advertisers don’t seem to care –even when he mocks them–as he did recently with wheat thins. They just love hitting the 18-34 demographic that watches him.

Loo Hoo. October 20th, 2012 at 2:52 pm

26 minutes. 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Fun to watch as W and Laura “get it”!

Peterr October 20th, 2012 at 2:53 pm

In the book, you discuss Colbert’s place in the pantheon of political satirists, seeing him in company with Jonathan Swift, Ben “Poor Richard” Franklin, and Mark Twain.

Now that’s some good company.

I was surprised, though, that you made no mention of Monty Python, who were spectacular at taking written satire into the audio-visual media of television and film.

See, for instance, the very Colbert-esque “Every Sperm is Sacred

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 2:53 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 60

My view is that it’s hard as hell to get thousands or hundreds of thousands to Washington for anything.

And it is kind of heart breaking that the rally had them there for a parody.

That’s all.

It meant and changed nothing.

How long before those people take the time to go there again?

billyc October 20th, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Sophia, were you high while studying Colbert?

As a fan of the show I feel compelled to ask you if Colbert gave you permission to study him.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Sophia, what do you think about the fact that Colbert and Stewart are often lumped together into “fake news,” without too muh distinction between the shows? I’m sure you agree that they are vastly and significantly different, yet they are often treated like a single entity by the media, and especially by critics who dismiss them both in a wave. Is this a lingering result of Colbert’s many years at The Daily Show?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:55 pm
In response to Peterr @ 63

Yes–It would have been fun to get into ties with Monty Python. In that chapter I tried to stick (after mention of Swift) to US examples. The idea was to build a sense of trajectory in US satire. But I couldn’t agree more that MP is an important precursor.

Loo Hoo. October 20th, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I read somewhere today that the colbert super pac still has $1 million. An October surprise??

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:56 pm
In response to billyc @ 66

Indeed I did get permission. I sent the book proposal outlining the main ideas in the chapters to his publicist and agent to let them know about the book. The wrote back the Stephen wished me well with the project.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 2:58 pm
In response to Ready @ 65

I agree that it is difficult to rally people for anything, and, sadly, they seem the most willing to do it for the most frivolous of reasons. But I disagree that it meant nothing. For me–at the time a high school student who made the drive from the New York Metropolitan Area to D.C. with a couple of friends, and felt that it was immensely valuable as an experience–it inspired me. It gave me hope just to be with that many people who felt like I did. It gave me the energy to undertake the “real” action I began doing, started with editorials and now campaigning for Obama and running a super PAC. What do you think, Sophia? What did it mean?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 2:59 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 67

Yes– think there is a lot of reason to see the shows as connected. Colbert was on TDS even before Stewart took over as anchor. And Colbert credits Stewart with bringing him to political comedy. And then of course the Colbert character was developed in TDS. But there are real differences too. Colbert’s character, his inclusion of more performance, and his interest in reaching out to the Colbert nation are just a few of those.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:00 pm
In response to Loo Hoo. @ 69

Seems possible. Colbert is full of surprises

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:00 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 71

No doubt many young people got a taste for what a mass of people together can feel like. Something sorely missing in our society today. They have kept us as segregated and apart as they can least we come together and start something.

I mean it meant nothing to the elite. A joke to them.

BevW October 20th, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Is this a newer version of what Will Rogers did in the 30s-40s? Will Rogers did satire against unequality.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:01 pm
In response to Loo Hoo. @ 69

I believe it is closer to $700,000. And, by the way–last night at 92Y, Colbert said he spoke to Trevor Potter that very day and that he has “something fun” ahead.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:03 pm
In response to Ready @ 74

Sure. Though, the same can be said for movements like Occupy Wall Street, which was decidedly not a joke or parody, and definitely not undertaken for the amusement of the participants. The media are apparently inclined to downplay the importance of such things at will. Even the No NATO protests, which were, according to attendees, eventful, received almost no attention and were scoffed at.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:03 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 71

I think many found the event disappointing. But that is because we can’t measure cause and effect from the rally to midterm voter turnout, which was one of the potential political outcomes. It is an event we can’t measure easily in those ways. But I would insist that the sheer fact of two comedians drawing that many people together on the mall is a feat that should not be discounted. I was there and I talked to many people that felt energized by the experience.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:05 pm
In response to BevW @ 75

Yes, you can read it as a newer version of Will Rogers. Where Colbert is really unusual is with his connection to young people and in his command of social media. He has moved his comedy into direct action at a very high level. None of his predecessors operated in a similar arena.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I did, too. Especially those who traveled from conservative towns, who had felt isolated because of their beliefs. What was your impression of the similar event, “Rock Me lLke a Herman Cain,” held fairly recently in South Carolina?

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:06 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 77

I don’t have a good answer.

I just know that I don’t find any of it truly funny anymore even as Jon and Colbert are still very funny.

I laugh, then feel sick in my stomach that this is our reality in this country.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:07 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 80

I think the Herman Cain rally was a lot more ambivalent –served to mock Cain more than activate politics.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:08 pm

How important is the social media involvement? For example, Stewart does not use Twitter personally. He engages with the audience drastically less in general. Yet, he has a strong fan base and stable ratings. Does it explain the loyalty of Colbert’s fans? If so, why doesn’t it seem to matter that Stewart doesn’t tweet, doesn’t come out of his studio after tapings to sign autographs and shake hands, and doesn’t give his audience assignments like Colbert does?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:11 pm

I think it does matter. It just doesn’t show in ratings. There is a lot of overlap in the viewers for the show–of course–so it makes it tricky to isolate the fans. The interaction between Colbert and his fans is an important part of what makes his call to end truthiness in politics powerful in ways we have not seen in Stewart.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Is this a critique, as far as you are concerned? This assessment from another person might serve as one–but typically this comes from people who want to ascribe a kind of responsibility to Colbert and Stewart that is typically reserved for journalists, politicians, and political activists–all roles that Colbert and Stewart may occasionally embody, and more often parody, but which certainly are not their job descriptions.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:15 pm

No–not necessarily a critique. at the time Colbert was doing a really good job of exposing the hypocrisy of the South Carolina republican party –who almost sold him naming rights to the primaries. So his political punch was solid in those days.

I just don’t count the Cain rally as a strong example of how he has encouraged political participation.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Sophia, you have argued that there has been a shift in the way people watch the show from viewers tuning in after consuming the daily news from a newspaper or network and then looking for a laugh, while now people may watch Colbert or Stewart first, then investigate into the stories that they found interesting afterward. What are you basing this on? Would you say that the change is for the better, for the worse, or not necessarily either?

billyc October 20th, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Thank you for answering my query – it was really meant in jest. I’ve picked up some “bad” habits from watching his show. As a union organizer in AZ for Cesar Chavez’s UFW in 1972 I thought that Colbert’s testimony before Congress did more to shed light on the plight of migrant farmworkers than I had seen in years. IMO I consider him a comedic genius.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:17 pm

I am basing this on some recent studies–one from pew. The shift is real. I think that the shift is for the better insofar as the research also shows that viewers that follow that process know more about issues and events.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:18 pm
In response to billyc @ 88

I do too!

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Additionally, Colbert often receives questions about influence in the context of politics. What are some other ways you think he impacts his viewers, which he may be more willing to take ownership of?

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:19 pm

But it’s only the outsiders who see the hypocrisy.

I sincerely doubt any member of the South Carolina republican party can even see it no less admit it.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:20 pm

One big way is philanthropy. His work with donors choose has also been a important sign of his crossing over into real world influence. He has made a very important and measurable impact there–and in doing other thngs like supporting the Olympics, etc.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Since Pew and other studies have reinforced the fact that Colbert and Stewart have a reasonably intelligent and well-informed audience, why does the O’Reilly characterization of them as “stoned slackers” persist?

Peterr October 20th, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Sophia, I have not yet finished the book, so perhaps you get to this in the last chapter, but I suspect that Colbert’s biggest political impact is not in grand events of activism like the rally on the mall. Instead, it’s in the way he makes people reevaluate the way they look at politics, politicians, and political actors of all kinds.

To go back to the Mark Twain parallels, Colbert changes the way people think, and indirectly how they act.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:21 pm
In response to Ready @ 92

Well yes–but Colbert just wants to reveal how ridiculous they are. He is not trying to change their opinions of themselves.

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:21 pm

I don’t agree.

When you take the role Colbert did which allowed him to say things and point out things as “one of them”, at some point you need to break character and become an outraged real person that is judging and pointing the figure at the injustice or it is total bull.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:22 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 94

Because youth culture in general is still very much demonized in the mainstream media.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:23 pm
In response to Peterr @ 95

Yes–that is it. He changes the way his viewers think in keeping with the best satirists.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:23 pm
In response to Ready @ 92

Do you think that there is something to be said for preaching to the choir, though? It’s like convention speeches, I think–they won’t convince anyone to change their minds, but they may get the base to turn out.

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:25 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 100

See what I said in 97.

If in the end you don’t break character it really has no power.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Colbert last night said that the average age of his viewers is 39–very young for late night, perhaps second youngest. He also said that he prefers not to receive demographic information about his audience from the network, opting instead to hear “if we had a good night, or if I’m canceled,” to paraphrase him. Why do you think that is?

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:28 pm
In response to Ready @ 101

It seems that you are making the assumption that viewers can’t tell what he really means while he is in character, and are unable to take the issue or the real meaning seriously if it is delivered in a satirical manner. I would disagree with that. I think Colbert’s satire can be more effective than Stewart’s straight “Look at those jerks” approach.

Dearie October 20th, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Ready@101: evidence to support your opinion please. Most of us get that the character is a character…. and can see behind the curtain.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:29 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 102

Colbert has said in more than one venue that he does not want to get too much in his head–so he has said he does not want to have these stats–it is sort of like now wanting to read books about him. I think that makes sense to the degree that he does not want to be too meta-aware of the big picture–because he worries it will hurt the art of the comedy.

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:30 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 103

In character is the delivery of the message. (yes they can take it seriously)

Real life is the action.

No real life, no action.

Dearie October 20th, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Ready@106: see my 104. Your opinion is simply your opinion. Enough of it.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:32 pm
In response to Ready @ 106

Testifying in character about migrant workers isn’t an example to the contrary?

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:33 pm
In response to Dearie @ 107

Hey Dearie,

You don’t have to agree.

I know it’s my opinion.

What do you want, a dissertation?

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Sophia, how do you envision your book being used–by average consumers and fans of the show for fun? By professors in seminars? In high school classes?

Peterr October 20th, 2012 at 3:33 pm

One of the more powerful effects of Colbert’s WHCA dinner remarks was to expose how much of an insider’s club the DC Press Corps is.

Colbert didn’t skewer the White House nearly as much as he did the media.

Sophia, in your study, did you notice any appreciable change in the behavior of the press or in Colbert after this event?

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:34 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 108

It didn’t work. It fell flat and actually was puzzling in that setting. Sorry. Many of my friends found it to be so too.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:36 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 110

The book has two main goals 1) to give insight into the show and 2) to demonstrate why Colbert’s comedy has served to invigorate our democracy, expose the weakness in news media, and offer an important corrective to the spin we get from politicians. I think that should make if of interest to fans and of value in teaching high school and college age students.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:37 pm
In response to Ready @ 112

I don’t think that’s accurate. Perhaps it fell flat among your circle of friends. But to even claim that it fell flat is to assume that we define “falling flat” the same way. I’d say getting people to show up to the hearing and watch C-SPAN, and even think about the plight of the migrant worker for a minute or two, is the opposite of falling flat. And, I’d point out that any claims that he didn’t belong in that setting in character are silly if you remember that Elmo once testified before Congress.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:38 pm
In response to Peterr @ 111

I wish I did!

The change came in the awareness the public got through Colbert of how ridiculous the event is and how much of a media spectacle it has become.

Sadly it shows little sign of change.

BevW October 20th, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Do you think there will be a second wave of “characters” providing the same type of satire in the future? Spin offs? New comedians?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:40 pm
In response to BevW @ 116

that is hard to say since in-character satire is typically hard to maintain over time. But I do think we have evidence of a lot more political comedy. Mock the Vote is a good example of that.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Do you know of any comparable characters or satire in other countries? Do you know anything about the show’s international appeal?

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:43 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 114

The role of the court jester was to confront power with the truth on the turf of the power.

That is why the White House Correspondence dinner was so powerful. Much more then any Colbert show can really be.

And what Colbert did on that night was verboten for 8 years, ie show Bush for the fool he is to his face.

The testimony in congress didn’t have the same dynamic. And just was silliness dangling out there in the air.

billyc October 20th, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Sophia, I think it would be a hoot to see you interviewed by Colbert in one of his upcoming shows. Would you be up for such an appearance? It wouldn’t surprise me in the least when one considers the quality of his stable of writers and their influence on him.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Sophia, besides your book, what constitues the body of work that studies Colbert academically? How is your book unique? How does it compare to other books or articles?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:48 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 118

It has a huge international appeal. It is watched regularly in Europe. There has been a lot of similar comedy circulating in there as well. There is a real trend in fake news and also in fake political campaigns. here is a link that talks about it: http://www.rferl.org/content/why-were-more-likely-than-ever-before-to-believe-fake-news/24701144.html

dakine01 October 20th, 2012 at 3:49 pm
In response to billyc @ 120
Elliott October 20th, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Still, it was a great moment in political commentary.

I am so grateful for the work that they do at both shows, Colbert’s adn Stewart’s. They must have absolutely the most amazing fantastic crew that puts them together.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:49 pm
In response to billyc @ 120

I would be delighted–OF COURSE! I think one way it would be work would be to have me on the show as TCR expert to help him remember himself and how important the show is. It would be one of those appearances where the person sits next to his desk –but now as a book interview.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Bassem Youssef has been called “the Egyptian Jon Stewart.” Do you think there is anyone who could be said to be the Stephen Colbert of another country?

BearCountry October 20th, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Hi, thanks for having this. I just got here and have been trying to catch up. Sophia and Remy, please don’t take Ready as typical of the commenters here. Actually, I haven’t seen Ready before, so I don’t know how often s/he comes here. Just the fact that SC was out for one day with the workers drew attention to the problems the workers have and then testifying whether in character or not was important. It certainly wouldn’t change the congressional people because they get their orders elsewhere, but some of the viewers may have awakened or changed their views.

Elliott October 20th, 2012 at 3:51 pm

btw Who chose the covershot, you?

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:51 pm
In response to Remy Maisel @ 126

I am not up on international comedy enough to be know. I am not currently aware of one, but that doesn’t mean that it does not exist.

BevW October 20th, 2012 at 3:52 pm

As we come to the end of this great Book Salon discussion,

Sophia, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and Stephen Colbert’s influence on politics.

Remy, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Sophia’s website and book (SophiaMcClennen.com)

Remy’s website (wrygoneawry)and posts (HuffingtonPost)

Thanks all, Have a great weekend.

Tomorrow: Jeff Connaughton / The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins; Hosted by William Black

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:53 pm
In response to BearCountry @ 127

While as a card-carrying member of the Colbert Nation I am terrified of your username, thanks for the comment. While Ready or anyone else is certainly welcome to disagree with your assessment, I am inclined to think that you are spot-on.

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Thanks

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:53 pm
In response to Elliott @ 128

We had lots of limits for the shot–since Palgrave did not want one form the show to avoid any issues with Comedy Central. I did track down the shot that is used. I liked the huge smile.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 3:54 pm
In response to BevW @ 130

It has been a real treat to do this! Thanks for so many great comments and questions.

Remy Maisel October 20th, 2012 at 3:54 pm
In response to BevW @ 130

Bev, thank you for the opportunity to host an interesting discussion.

Sophia, it is always a pleasure to discuss your book, and Stephen Colbert.

Thank you everyone for the comments and questions–you all made my job pretty easy.

Ready October 20th, 2012 at 3:55 pm
In response to BearCountry @ 127

Hey, why am I not typical?

Oh don’t bother answering that.

billyc October 20th, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Thanks to both Sophia & Remy!! I hope we’ll be seeing you soon, Sophia, on the Colbert Report!

Suzanne October 20th, 2012 at 3:59 pm

thank you so much! a very enjoyable book salon and book.

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 4:00 pm
In response to billyc @ 137

You and me both!

Sophia A. McClennen October 20th, 2012 at 4:00 pm
In response to Suzanne @ 138

Thank You!

Elliott October 20th, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Thank you for the book and thank you both for the discussion

and, as always, thank you Bev for doing all it takes to make it happen.

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