Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Blitzkrieg on Stupitude

Man on a roll in The Colbert Report.

««««« The Colbert Report. Monday thru Thursdays at 11:30pm on Comedy Central. Ends December 18.

The most important cultural event this month not involving Benedict Cumberbatch is the finale of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. Since its debut in 2005, the show has arguably outdone its parent, The Daily Show, as the benchmark in late night fake news. Colbert (who, unlike his TV incarnation, pronounces the "t" in his last name) will air his last show on December 18, before taking over Late Night on CBS next year.
          For those very late to this party, Colbert's show is an impeccable parody of Fox blowhards like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. His alter-ego "Stephen Cobert" is one of those gut-level patriots who is proud to think with his red, white and blue balls instead of—you know—that gray and white stuff between his ears. Where Jon Stewart's main mode is self-deprecation, Colbert's character revels in the perfection of his ignorance. His interviews with guests are couched as ambushes by the forces of righteousness, predicated on "nailing" people—which he loudly celebrates whether he has accomplished it or not. And it's all been done on a consistently high level for more than 1340 episodes.
          The comparison with Stewart is key to appreciating how great the Report has become in its nine years. Though The Daily Show gets credit for epitomizing a broader trend toward satirical news, it is not, strictly speaking, satirical. Stewart's sharp, funny, and quite often true commentary is always delivered from a distance. That distance might be moralizing, or exhortatory, or just plain mean, but it is always there. What Stewart does is best described as clever snark, not satire.
          The only truly satirical material in The Daily Show are the reports from its staff of fake "correspondents", who impersonate the self-importance and showmanship of network field reporters. Colbert (along with Steve Carell, Ed Helms, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and many more over the years) came out this fine tradition, and has arguably raised it to true art.
          Make no mistake—I'm a fan of Stewart. Fact is, though, you can see the range of his comic repertoire in about a week. By contrast, it's taken almost a decade just to sample Colbert's full menu. Within a single episode, he'll veer from deep-fried pomposity to vacillating schoolboy to weepy narcissist. He'll pour scorn on bears, shake his fist at Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, put the British Empire "on notice". Where Stewart plays the comedic equivalent of a kazoo, Colbert works with a full symphony orchestra.
          The end of the Report will leave a big hole in our weeknights. So big, in fact, that it's hard to believe some version of "Stephen Colbert" won't make regular appearances on the new Late Night. We'll find out next year.
          The real legacy of late-night satire won't be told in 2015, but during the next Presidential election, and the one after that. On the plus side, Stewart and Colbert continue to be wildly popular among younger viewers (and a quite a few older ones too), and their shows have become major sources of news for whole segments of the voting population. Viewers who watched Colbert's comedic take on campaign finance laws were shown to be objectively better informed on that critical issue than viewers of Fox, CNN or any other major outlet.  A 2007 study found regular viewers of Stewart's and Colbert's show to be better informed on all issues than viewers of the PBS Newshour (surprising) and Bill O'Reilly (not surprising).
          Trouble is, none of this is necessarily translating into greater voter involvement. Both Comedy Central shows extensively covered the 2014 midterms, but turnout was dismal, the worst in 72 years. So the question becomes: is making the news funny an incentive to participate in the political process—or a substitute for it?
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

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