This week we say goodbye to “Stephen Colbert,” the persona who has, with unending, high-octane bluster and faux ignorance, regaled us from the bully pulpit of his nightly show.
I will miss him terribly, though, the truth is, I haven’t watched The Colbert Report regularly in several years — I usually tune in when a friend tells me to watch a specific segment. I don’t seek catharsis about the day’s news just before bed these days; rather, I want to forget the day with sitcom reruns, my DVR queue, or a good novel (for that reason, I have also given up any regular viewing of the MSNBC nightly lineup or The Daily Show). In some ways, Twitter’s endless quip competition around the day’s doings has replaced that sort of ritual for me. But that further demonstrates that Colbert’s humor shaped the way we think about news and social justice.
His show, conceived as a parody of cable news staples hosted by Bill O’Reilly (Papa bear!), Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough, and Lou Dobbs, premiered amidst the settled-in malaise of the late Bush era.
The Bush era. Recall, if you will, those eight years of prolonged dissociation and rage. By now, it feels oddly like it’s been erased from history, but there was no ambivalence or complexity in the discourse when Colbert rolled up on the scene. Perpetual war and perpetual disbelief were the two pillars of one side of the divide’s relationship to our government. On the other side, you had zealous patriotism and unquestioning fidelity. Dick Cheney’s comments on the torture report this week were a reminder: the sensation for many of us was of being in a car with a clown and a psychotic evil guy in the front, leading us off a cliff.
Those of us in the “Reality-Based Community” felt abandoned and excluded by the political culture. So when the show premiered with its now-fabled segment on “truthiness,” it was like a bolt of lightning.
There was a period of years (years!) during which I watched The Colbert Report nearly religiously, right before bed, as a way of expunging the national events of the previous day. It was so sewn into the cloth of my routine that Stephen would occasionally make cameos in my dreams. I had something of an idealized picture of the “real” Stephen in my head, the guy I thought I could sense behind that ironic, angry facade, who was so clearly a gentle humanist of the deepest order, an obsessive fan of Tolkien and music. I was sure of it, because I saw that when he pretended to grill the high-profile feminists on his show, he was always just a little bit kinder to them, as though he had such a respect for their work he couldn’t even bring himself to bloviate in character. Maybe this was misplaced chivalry, but it was endearing. As Gloria Steinem said, “I had the feeling that his artificial self was setting me up so I could say what his real self would have said.”
And his segment on birth control subsidies in health insurance, an issue near and dear to my heart, was one of my favorite Colbert moments ever:
This segment rescued my sanity when those of us who spoke up for birth control coverage were being pilloried online. And at his best, Stephen Colbert rescued his viewers’ sanity. (It’s sad that one of his worst moments — the hackneyed “Rally for Sanity” with Jon Stewart— bore the name it did, because that rally made me less sane, while his nightly efforts made me more so).
The zenith of the Colbert era came when he spoke in front of President Bush at the White House Correspondents dinner. Here’s why it was such a big deal: the media had rolled over for the Bush administration for years and years, beating the drums for his wars for him.
Again, it’s hard to remember after six years of the next guy, but it was a fact of political life. It took a comedian soaked in a persona to actually confront both the administration and the fawning press.
But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works: the president makes decisions. He’s the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction!
Particularly heroic was the skit in which he all but explicitly called the President to task for the deaths in Iraq, during his mock audition for the job of White House Press Secretary, with Helen Thomas portraying the press.
THOMAS: Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands (Colbert’s smile fades) of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. COLBERT (interrupting): OK, hold on Helen, look . . . THOMAS (continuing): Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? COLBERT (again interrupting): Helen, I’m going to stop you right there..
Later, when the Obama election brought a new climate, and a more complex one, to political discussions, the show felt less crucial on a daily basis, although Colbert still created some banner television moments.
With the Obamas as prized guests on his show, Colbert both called the administration to task for secretiveness and also hung out at the seat of power. It was a fine line to walk. More recently he saved his sharpest ire for powerful, bullying entities like Amazon, when he took the side of his fellow Hachette authors. And until the very end, he took feminists’ side, giving Anita Sarkeesian a platform after she’d been pilloried by Gamergate. By turning the vicious misogyny against her into something pompous and foolish, he removed some of its teeth. But beyond that, real Stephen broke character and acknowledged he was a feminist (I knew it!). Which means that the Stephen we’re gaining is just as much of an ally as the Stephen we’re losing.