On the very first episode of the The Colbert Report, which aired October 17, 2005, Stephen Colbert invented a word that summed up the frustrations many were feeling at the time. “Truthiness”, he explained, was the feeling of being right, regardless of facts. “I don’t trust books,” he said. “They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today….We are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.” (“Truthiness” was declared “Word of the Year” in 2006 by Merriam Webster.) Colbert was, of course, speaking in his Report character as a blustering, pompous conservative news pundit. He finished the bit by famously declaring: “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” Satire is often regarded as one of the most effective ways to understand a society. It reveals the values of the society and serves as an amplifier for its ills.
Colbert has kept that promise faithfully over the nine-year run of his show. He has lampooned politicians and pundits alike, using his character to undermine misuses of power and distortions of truth as he sees them. He has usually done this by embodying and exaggerating those misuses of power or distortions of truth, as in the “truthiness” bit. The Report’s final episode aired on Thursday, December 18, 2014, and Colbert will replace David Letterman as host of the Late Show next fall. Colbert has said that he will be dropping his character as host of the Late Show.
Colbert’s satire has always been characterized by his own likeability and charm, but he has certainly still been capable of really biting moments–probably never more so than when he roasted then-President George W. Bush and his press corps at the 2006 White House Correspondents Association Dinner. Standing just a few feet from the President, Colbert delivered a stinging monologue mocking the president’s policies (all in character, of course). “I believe that the government that governs best is the government that governs least–and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq,” he quipped. He encouraged Bush to pay no attention to his sagging approval rating. “I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Colbert’s after-dinner speech was broadcast on two cable television channels and, predictably, went viral and clogged media outlets in the days immediately following. Arguably, though, Colbert’s most enduring contribution as a satirist came a few years later in 2011, when he started his own super PAC. He ran television ads, endorsed real candidates, and almost succeeded in hijacking the Republican primary in South Carolina. Colbert’s super PAC raised over $1.02 million in its January 2012 filing with the Federal Election Commission. Colbert used his show to promote the super PAC and to educate his viewers about corruption in campaign finance. He promised that the money raised would be used not only on political ads, but also on “normal administrative expenses, including but not limited to luxury hotel stays, private jet travel, and PAC mementos from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.” Colbert received a Peabody award in April 2012 for his show’s satirical reporting on the super PAC, and he was lauded for using his show as an “innovative means of teaching American viewers about the landmark court decision”–referring to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling of 2010.
Whether or not you agree with Colbert’s politics, his influence is a reminder of the important function of satire in public discourse. It’s no accident that satire has been around since the ancient Greeks. Its innate ability to cut right to the heart of the issue, and to cut the mighty down to size, make it an invaluable rhetorical tool. At its best, satire is fearless in the face of power, and as Colbert has demonstrated, it has a unique way of rallying people to a cause.
In a broad sense, of course, satire is everywhere in our society. We certainly have no shortage of people willing to have a laugh (or take a jab) at those in power. Like anything else, satire varies widely in its quality, but the best satire has a positive point to make. It is not merely destructive, but constructive. Colbert’s super PAC is an excellent example of satire that–quite literally–made a mockery of something that needed to be mocked, and helped shed light on a genuine enemy of free democracy.
The trouble is that political satire like Colbert’s is inherently transient. As soon as the news cycle turns over, it loses its immediacy. That isn’t to say that it loses its value or even its relevance, but the farther we are removed from the events being satirized, the harder it is to appreciate it. Great satire from the past, like Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is separated from us by the details of its historical situation. If we want to understand it, we’re obligated to study up on the particulars, and even after we close the gaps, it lacks the urgency and relevance it would have had in the moment.
Similarly, since new stories are always happening, the need for good satire is ongoing, and frankly, a satirist like Colbert takes some replacing. Colbert was hardly the only show in town. Besides Jon Stewart–out of whose shadow Colbert himself emerged over a decade ago–the late night industry has produced the likes of John Oliver and Colbert’s own replacement on Comedy Central, Larry Wilmore. There’s plenty of satire, too, good and bad, on the internet and elsewhere. But Colbert’s unique handle on the zeitgeist, evidenced by the enormous impact his show has had on our culture’s understanding of current events, set him apart. If you need convincing, check out the Wikipedia article on Colbert’s cultural impact.
The aptness of Colbert’s character, his innate grasp of the political and cultural climate, his wit and charm, and maybe most of all the practicality of his satire made The Colbert Report something special. The stars aligned, you might say, to give us the Report, and I for one will miss it very much. While Colbert will bring his tremendous abilities as an entertainer to the Late Show, it won’t be the same. In fact, some have suggested that in a way, the step up will actually be a step down for Colbert. Interviewing stars about their latest films isn’t quite the same as doing biting political satire. Stephen Colbert as “Stephen Colbert” was something unique, even something wondrous. Stephen Colbert as host of Late Show–as good as he might be–will find it harder to stand out.
Satire is often regarded as one of the most effective ways to understand a society, revealing its values and amplifying its ills. Good satire well-received is important to a healthy society as a means to hold those in power publicly accountable. It’s an important embodiment of our freedom to dissent. We ought to know who our best satirists are and listen to them carefully. Now we have one less to listen to.