The Spiritual Ennui of Stephen Colbert’s High-Wire Performance


Goodbye, “Stephen Colbert!” Hello Stephen Colbert, person and brand new host of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. On the occasion of the passing of “Stephen Colbert” — pronounced the French way, name always in scare quotes — a significant amount of ink has been spilled on his genius; however, we also noticed that when it came to the Flavorwire staff, a significant amount of us had, well, fatigue regarding the “Stephen Colbert” narrative as the rogue truthiness hero in the media. Can you keep well-honed satire sharp and dangerous for nearly a decade? Should you? While there’s no denying that “Stephen Colbert” was a performance for the ages, are we going to miss The Colbert Report? Here are some reasons why we’re ready for Stephen Colbert, the man.

It got old: I had a period in my life when I watched The Colbert Report every day, because somebody I loved also loved watching it. And while I found that the primary concept was very funny — with comedian Stephen Colbert, a brilliant presence in things like The Daily Show and Strangers With Candy, taking on a Bill O’Reilly blowhard right-wing persona, going on and on about the news with no real idea of what the truth was, just that he was invariably right (and outraged), over time — it eventually lost its bite for me. Watching the show every day, in particular, made the seams show through more clearly. You could see the formula — the news, the quip, the skewed perspective looking on the world, Colbert maniacally winking at the camera.

For me, The Colbert Report (and the Adam to its Eve, The Daily Show), had a feeling of comic bite and danger when we were in the absurdist era of the George W. Bush presidency. But the shows kept going, and while the world didn’t get less completely absurd, there was less of an overarching villain to push back against once Barack Obama was our president, and so many more arenas to express comic discontent. Even more so, The Colbert Report took on the air of an “establishment” show — albeit a really weird one, built on a concept — that, you know, was “just comedy” at the end of the day. (Which wasn’t true! It was news!)

In a world without Colbert, I know that the book industry, at the least, will miss the instant hi-five of the “Colbert bump,” yet it was increasingly frustrating and a little silly that authors — some geniuses — would be required to parry with a concept in order to raise some awareness about their work. It was just emblematic of the rest of the show. All the right things were said and referenced, but it was really proud of itself for being the last liberal leftist world-view left standing in an age of spinny spin spin. Eventually it just got to be talking points for someone with the opinions I basically agreed with at the dinner table — not news, not that funny, not incredibly informative — just a celebration of the “right” (or left, to be more accurate) ideas. — Elisabeth Donnelly

He’s a political degenerate: It isn’t that Colbert is insufficiently subversive, or that he is somehow not the role model we’ve all desired. That’s not it at all. I’m saying that Colbert is regressive, and by regressive I mean: regression to the mean. And by “mean,” I mean the middle. He’s a purveyor of Jon Stewart’s “magic middle” philosophy of political info/edutainment, whereby views outside the ken of a basic cable liberalism are elided, hidden, or ignored. In Stewart’s case, this “magic middle” was emblematized by the “sanity rallies” — a series of events nefariously designed to boil the piss of disenfranchised people with actual problems.

Colbert’s magic act is simple enough: hide harmless liberal views behind a wilfully stupid conservative persona. Nod to progressives when you need some street cred. Wink proverbially to let them know you’re a fellow traveler. But for those of us who grew up in Southern red states, Colbert’s superfluously patriotic pundit is a monstrous rendition of the idiot congressman who installed right-to-work laws, closed Planned Parenthoods, and otherwise fucked endlessly with our rights and lives. And this persona requires the red vs. blue dialectic of American political abuse that Colbert’s fans and defenders seem to believe was invented during the Bush era.

The Colbert Report is liberal comfort food. On the one hand, this makes my present tirade sort of unnecessary — it’s silly to rant and rave at an Oreo. On the other hand, if you eat Oreos every night, you’ll end up with cavities and diabetes. I’m saying that if you watch The Colbert Report enough, you will end up with a political soul fraught with political cavities and political diabetes.

Now, thankfully, none of this matters. Colbert, who was never more than what cable TV executives would allow, is now moving to a network where he will sit, every night, right in front of your Baby Boomer parents, right where he belongs. — Jonathon Sturgeon

It’s not that funny at this point: The defense I usually hear from Colbert diehards, especially when the political aspects of his schtick fail to deliver on their big promises, is that The Colbert Report is just entertainment — and hilarious at that. By holding a mirror up to the absurdist nature of the right and infotainment of both political extremes, Colbert’s not only become some sort of deity for his longform art project, he’s become a comedy god — an alternative to the less mature, probably baked Judd Apatow set. But Colbert’s humor, for me, lost its appeal long ago. I can see the “punchline” as soon as he starts the “joke.”

Certainly one’s own partiality to satire factors in here, but for a nine-year-long act that is, by nature, grating as hell to remain brilliant, even subversive, in its humor, it needs to evolve somehow. The political tides shifted with Obama’s election, and while that gave Colbert a new outrage target, it lasted a couple years at best before becoming tired as well. Now when I watch The Colbert Report, it’s easy and often that I will let the character Colbert’s been playing slip from my mind. Perhaps it’s because nothing could surprise us at this point in the shameless world of bipartisan TV news. — Jillian Mapes