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?
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