The Colbert Report

The Colbert Report

A footnote to those year-in-review roundups from 2005: Let’s hand a laurel to Brooks Brothers, the upscale clothier, for its contribution to political satire. I’m talking about those natty suits and ties worn (according to program credits) by Stephen Colbert in the inspired Comedy Central satire The Colbert Report, which began airing last October.

An offshoot of The Daily Show, Comedy Central’s popular fake news program, The Colbert Report is a brilliant spoof of right-wing TV punditry, particularly the ravings of Bill O’Reilly at Fox News. The half-hour episodes showcase the zany television persona that Colbert initially created on The Daily Show, where he mock-reported the regular segment “This Week in God.” This alter-Colbert is a squeaky-clean ignoramus with extraordinarily expressive eyebrows—and he’s also an egomaniac whose views veer so far rightward that he makes John Ashcroft look like Sean Penn. Four times a week, in a studio environment loudly decorated in patriotic red and blue, Colbert trolls through a sampling of current events, pompously responding to them with a fusillade of ridiculous opinions.

At the height of December’s conservative-instigated ballyhoo about the word “Christmas,” for example, Colbert solemnly informed the audience that, as a “Christmas originalist,” he condemned any Yuletide customs that had evolved from their initial form in any way whatsoever. Santa Claus? A ghastly innovation, Colbert asserted. The real seasonal luminary can only be St. Nicholas. As for plastic mistletoe, forget it: the only acceptable mistletoe is the living plant, harvested by white-robed dwarves. Needless to say, Colbert also condemned those “storm troopers of diversity” who use the term “holiday,” rather than “Christmas.” “If there’s one thing Jesus cared about,” he stated with deadpan intensity, “it’s semantics.”

As this comic riff demonstrates, The Colbert Report doesn’t shy away from the topic of faith. Indeed, if parody is the second most sincere form of flattery, as is perhaps the case in cable television, the show’s frequent focus on religion is downright gratifying—a trait perhaps attributable to the fact that Colbert is a practicing Catholic. (“There would be plenty of Catholics in the world who would think of me as not that observant,” he told the New York Times Magazine, “but for the world I move in professionally, I seem monastic.”) Even the Vatican’s recently issued document on homosexuals and the priesthood was not off limits as fodder for “The Wørd,” a regular feature in which a split screen counterpoints Colbert’s image, on the left, with changing text on the right (partly a send-up of the graphics-heavy aesthetic of cable news outlets). “What’s the difference between ‘transitory homosexuality’ and ‘deep-seated homosexuality’?” Colbert asked rhetorically at one point. “Theater camp?” suggested the impudent text on the adjacent screen.

Allusions to belief also surface in sequences unrelated to church edicts. In a segment purportedly justifying the nation’s current health-care system—which, as we all know, leaves large numbers of Americans uninsured—Colbert sanctimoniously pointed out that illness is a part of life. “God’s like a corporation,” he argued, “If we don’t break down, he can’t put new product on the market.”

This kind of outlandish pronouncement frequently gives The Colbert Report the savage bite of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” But the satire is all the more delectable because it’s leavened with whimsy. On the one hand, you have Colbert arguing that, in order to overtake China as the world’s top jailer of journalists (the United States currently comes in sixth, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists), America should jail the entire New York Times op-ed board and everybody at 60 Minutes. On the other hand, you have him extolling the return of rocker Rick Springfield to a role on General Hospital.

This meld of goofiness and faux partisanship achieves a political end, pointing to the sheer inanity of some right-wing beliefs. An all-too-familiar strain of smug, insular patriotism recently came in for skewering, for example, when Colbert delivered a ridiculously bigoted survey of foreign news outlets. “If it has accent marks, can it really be news?” he demanded. To the gratification of highbrow viewers, this segment included a snippet from Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s 1929 Un Chien Andalou, used by Colbert to disparage all things Spanish. (The Colbert Report doesn’t dumb down its cultural references.)

But the whimsy factor also fuels the zany Colbert persona. When you laugh, you’re laughing both at the absurdity of the specific idea or allusion—that ludicrous brush-off of foreign news—and also at the Colbert character’s eccentricity. And it’s here that the Brooks Brothers attire pays off, hinting that this pompous know-nothing has all the traits one requires from a fully rounded fictional personality, including specific tastes in dress. In this era of The Onion and South Park, satire isn’t exactly in short supply. But a satire that knows how to knot a $70 tie in a half-Windsor—that’s truly a cut above.

Published in the 2006-01-27 issue: 
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Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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