Exclusive Interview with Sophia A. McClennen author of “Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy”
At Penn State, Sophia A. McClennen wears many hats: she’s a Professor of Comparative Literature, Spanish, and Women’s Studies; the Director of the Center for Global Studies; and Director of the Graduate Program in Comparative Literature. While much of her work involves Latin American media and literature — McClennen is the author of Ariel Dorfman: An Aesthetics of Hope, about the Chilean author and activist, as well as of the upcoming Globalization and Latin American Cinema— she also writes about culture, politics, and social change. This focus makes Stephen a perfect subject for her cultural criticism, as seen by her regular blog entries to The Huffington Post, many of which center around The Colbert Report. Her newest book, previously titled America According to Colbert: Satire as Public Pedagogy, is available in hardcover, and will be released in paperback in early July, retitled Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy.
I want to start by saying that these questions are absolutely fabulous. I am so grateful for the careful reading that led to such insightful questions.
I changed the title to ‘Colbert’s America’ — since that refers to the paperback version and is the one folks will actually be able to afford! I also tend to refer to him as “Colbert” and not “Stephen” but we can change that.
‘Colbert’s America’ focuses on “public pedagogy”: how Stephen’s comedy actively engages people, makes them think, and encourages his audience to create a space for public debate about social and political issues. For our audience who hasn’t yet read the book, would you briefly summarize its thesis in your words?
‘Colbert’s America’ is the first book to cover the various themes and features of The Colbert Report. Its goal is to offer readers insight into the powerful ways that Stephen Colbert’s comedy has challenged the cult of ignorance that has threatened meaningful public debate and social dialogue since 9/11.
Since the show’s first episode in 2005, Colbert’s program has entertained its audience, encouraged political discourse, and stirred some of the most complacent members of society. One of the key arguments of the book is that Colbert does more than mock pundits and politicians: he actually has helped influence a new generation of actively involved citizens. He also, though, teaches his viewers that citizenship can be fun. So I argue that it is a mistake to miss the comedy and only see the social critique. Colbert’s satire fosters critical
thinking about social issues, encourages active citizenship, and entertains the viewer – all at the same time.
You previously wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and stated that you “would not have written this book without that experience.” Could you talk a little about how the Lampoon influenced you, how it helped you better understand comedy, and how it affected your perception of what was happening in The Colbert Report?
I have to start by saying that I was not a writer for the Lampoon — I worked on the business end. But the experience of working on a humor magazine dedicated to parody and satire showed me how that kind of humor can function as a highly effective form of social critique while being extremely entertaining.
Hanging out with the Lampoon’s writers — like Conan O’Brien and Bill Oakley — also helped me appreciate how incredibly complex effective satire is as an art form. When you watch The Colbert Report you can get lost in the silliness—but behind it is extremely sharp writing that is highly attentive to the ways that words work. Great satire does this without the audience even noticing the work that goes into creating the comedy. Its wittiness is so incredibly amusing and biting at the same time.
So when I first saw “The Word” segment — I immediately became fascinated by the way that Colbert’s show was using language satirically. It was so smart and so funny and it reminded me of my Lampoon days, of the experience of having a ton of fun while also trying to make a statement at the same time.
You really shine a spotlight on Colbert’s appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and I was fascinated by your research on how the mainstream media thoroughly ignored him until the video went viral on the Internet. It’s not that I wasn’t generally aware of it, but the actual numbers you include are pretty astonishing. Why do you think there was such a disconnect between the media and the audience?
There are a number of possible explanations for why the mainstream media initially panned or ignored Colbert’s epic performance that night. Some say that they felt insulted — since Colbert had mocked the media as much as Bush. Others suggest that they didn’t think he was funny (I find that argument a bit absurd since funny or not — it would have been news to cover a roast like that, right?). And others suggest that they felt that Colbert had “crossed the line” and they did not want to cover the speech because they felt it had been disrespectful.
My reading of it is that it was a combination of the media’s own sense of being insulted by Colbert alongside their discomfort with watching someone roast the President — a president that they had failed to hold to the same standards of critique that they had used on President Clinton. Recall the brilliant moment during the speech when he said:
“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!”
That was such an effective critique. It drove home the media’s complacency with extraordinary power. And it is no surprise that when the US public got a chance to watch the speech, as it circulated on the internet through alternative media outlets and the blogosphere, that they were exhilarated by what they saw.
Also, in relation to that appearance: Stephen Colbert has stated pretty consistently that “he had no idea that he was upsetting anyone … or rallying anyone”. I’ve never heard him vary from this view — including in an interview with Jonathan Alter just a few months ago. Do you think he was genuinely surprised by the reaction his routine received? Why do you think he has never said directly what seems so obvious to most of us: that he came there to mock Bush’s stubbornly willful ignorance and the media’s kowtowing? Or, as he has put it in another context, that he came there to speak truth to power?
I’ve always found those comments a bit perplexing too. I think we know how important the speech has been to him. In many ways it catapulted his career to a whole new level. And he wouldn’t have included the entire transcript in the back of ‘I Am America (And So Can You!)’ if he didn’t also see it as a huge part of his satire.
He has also said that he didn’t realize that he was causing any stirs since the audience was big enough that he heard plenty of laughs—but it is difficult to imagine that he was
unaware of the facial expressions of the President given that he was about 5 feet away. And there are plenty of shots from that night that also show audience members looking
uncomfortable. (Of course those shots only add to the enjoyment factor for those of us who later watched the performance on-line!).
So all I can do is guess on that one. My best thought on it is that he has decided to keep that one close to his vest. He may, rightly, realize that openly admitting that he went there to mock the President to his face and expose his idiocy could backfire and hurt his public appeal. You’ll notice that he is one of the few—if not the only — satirical comedians today to have exceptional charisma with the public. He avoids any negative, nasty, biting, or snarky comments when he speaks out of character. And, even more importantly, he seems honestly good natured and fun-loving. So we are unlikely to ever hear him say something that seems aggressive. He just lets the performance stand for itself without openly stating that he hoped it would change the way the nation thought about the president. I think it is a huge part of his success.
How do you think the experience at the Dinner affected Colbert’s subsequent “political theater,” as I’ll call it-everything from testifying on migrant workers to getting his SuperPac approved? Do you feel that the response alerted him to possibilities he might not formerly have imagined?
This is a great question — and one we can only guess at too. There is a definite trajectory where Colbert begins to experiment more and more with crossing over into direct political venues after the performance at the WHCA Dinner. His celebrity certainly affords him more and more opportunities to be effective in these arenas as well. I can’t be sure whether he had had those ideas previously and the Dinner gave him the opening to do them—or if the success of the Dinner led him to explore more of these forms of comedic public intervention.
One other possible way to think about this, though, is that the experience revealed his 30-minute show was no longer the only space through which he could reach his audience. I think it is possible that he realized that his fans would “watch” whether he was on a comedy show or not.
Since the book has been published, Stephen has continued to expand his pedagogy into new areas, in particular through his SuperPac. I wonder if you’d like to comment on some of his latest activities, including the South Carolina primary brouhaha and the proposed Animal Planet/Nat Geo debate.
Yes! In fact, the SuperPac sort of highlights the thesis of my book and takes my argument to a whole other level. The SuperPac is without question another magnitude of scale over the Dinner performance. At the Dinner we were amazed by his “ballsalicious” performance, but the SuperPac has been Colbert’s entry into civic action. In some ways I see it growing more out of his work with “Better Know a District” than the Dinner event.
The power of the SuperPac as a vehicle for politically motivated satire is really extraordinary. I wrote about his work with it in a blog where I called him the “PAC Daddy”. Colbert managed to teach the nation how PACs work in a way that was entertaining and enlightening. This is no small feat when we realize that we have been hearing about the need for campaign finance reform for over a decade with almost no traction in the public. The reason why the general public knows how PACs work today is largely due to Colbert.
And then he used the SuperPac to go into a critique of negative ads, it gave him a chance to expose the funding for the South Carolina primary, and more. I expect that he has more plans for election-connected public pedagogy to come. He seems to be having a lot of fun thinking of creative ways to insert his satire into the public sphere.
But, as you mention, some of these stunts just feel gimmicky. A battle between Animal Planet and National Geographic over who gets to be affiliated with him is not exactly a political intervention. At the very least, though, Colbert does a good job of showing his audience how corporations vie to get public attention. And you can’t really fault him for hamming it up since it just boosts the Colbert ego—which of course is a trademark feature of his persona.
One of your major points that interested me concerned Stephen’s ability to combine education and amusement. Coming out of film studies, I’ve been accustomed to dealing with many political artists who long to reach a general audience and engage them with something other than Hollywood entertainment. They usually haven’t managed to win over the masses, however. But one person they’ve always used as a touchstone is the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who believed in “interrupting the spectacle” and also making spectators aware of the difference between the role and the actor playing it. It seems to me that Stephen has succeeded with this as well as anyone. I wonder if you’ve thought about Brecht and how that type of theater might have influenced Stephen, especially as he trained as a “serious” actor.
This is a great question — and now you are making me wish I had thought of that link earlier. You are absolutely spot on, I think. Most actors trained today would have been exposed to Brecht so there is little question that during his years at Northwestern Colbert would have been taught Brecht’s ideas about ways to use performance to shock the public out of complacency.
One of his best recent examples of that, I think, was the way that he responded to the Wheat Thins sponsorship e-mail. That was one of those moments when he made it clear to the audience that he was being sponsored, that the sponsorship was asking him to use the product, and was also establishing guidelines about how it should be used. In fact, he also did something a bit similar with Doritos. He effectively undermines the artifice of product placement, breaking the plane and showing the audience how ridiculous the entire process is. What is sort of amazing here, though, is that he somehow manages to hold onto his persona—even if less overtly — while doing it.
What kind of comic possibilities do you think Stephen opens up for political performance and public pedagogy beyond his own show? Is his achievement something you feel could be replicated by others? And by that, I don’t mean someone merely imitating him, but taking a cue to create thoughtful satire in their own way.
I think the answer lies in the Millenials—the generation that has grown up with Colbert and that is his target audience. I think that this is a generation that “gets it” – and that is more likely to use performance and play to speak truth to power than previous ones. These are kids that grew up with the playful use of language found on FaceBook and the short, punchy writing of texts and tweets. And, despite the older generation that wants to dismiss them as narcissistic slackers, this generation votes at a rate of 66%, whereas the previous two voted at a rate of 50%.
Colbert has shown his fans the power of satire and he has redefined its potential to have a public impact. It is hard to imagine that the generation growing up with him won’t take his lead and run with it.
You compare Colbert to Jonathan Swift as a satirist, and point out some commonalities between the two. But one thing you don’t mention is their shared Irish Catholicism. What influence do you think that had in their similar perception of the world?
Yes, that’s a good point. The connection is a strong one and I think that it all goes back to a deep sense of humanity and compassion and a total intolerance for hypocrisy and hubris. Neither Swift in his time nor Colbert today can idly watch human suffering, gross social inequity, and disrespect for human life. But what really brings out their need for satire is when those with privilege try to justify or explain or condone these sorts of behaviors, explaining away the suffering of others as perfectly natural, necessary, or not really that big a deal. There is a real connection between Swift and Colbert on that and it orresponds to a Christian view of brotherhood and compassion.
You spend a fair amount of time, quite rightly, on Stephen’s use of language — puns, neologisms, and so forth. It’s interesting that in a world, and a medium, where images frequently supplant language and writing has faded in importance, so much of his show focuses on the constantly shifting meaning of words and the construction of rhetoric. Indeed, he exemplifies “word/play” in its multiple senses. Do you think that strategy automatically engages spectators in a different and more intellectually rigorous way?
Absolutely. As I mentioned above, I think that when I first watched the show what immediately captured my attention was the incredibly smart use of language. There is no other major satirist today using language in the multiple ways found on The Colbert Report. It is definitely another trademark feature of Colbert’s comedy.
Satire depends on language—whether verbal or written—since it is the space between what is said and what is meant that begins the critical process for the audience. But The Colbert Report really uses written text –in the opening run-down when “headlines” accompany his puns, in the opening credits that have a variety of words swirling around him, and then, of course, on segments like “The Word.”
In many ways those uses of language simply parody the ways that written text are used on shows like The O’Reilly Factor or in the text heavy graphics that accompany most news programming today. What Colbert does with written text is draw the viewer’s attention to these practices and encourage critical reflection. In a moment when politicians like Newt Gingrich express “moral outrage” at being asked about his private life, we need to be reminded of how easily language can be coopted by those in power. And Colbert has been extremely effective at doing just that.
You contextualize Stephen in relation to the postmodernists and their deconstruction of language, truth, and identity. Without a doubt, Stephen –and his staff–couldn’t do what they do without that precedent. (And their knowledge of postmodern theory has been brilliantly demonstrated in more than a few parodies of art criticism!) They understand that we live in a world where language and truth are unstable, and words are frequently used to mean the opposite of what they should. In terms of Colbert’s pedagogy, do you think he’s teaching this theoretical framework to the public at large, and demonstrating how they should try to take apart both the rhetoric and the images that are thrown at them every day?
I do. I think that that is one of the pieces of the show most easily overlooked. Colbert doesn’t just criticize the authoritative, propagandistic language of the power elite, and he doesn’t just expose the absurd spectacle of the mainstream news media, he also calls to task those on the left that celebrated deconstruction and postmodernism in ways that led to political apathy, self-satisfied obtuse critique, and critical inertia.
I think this is one of the most brilliant parts of the show and it demonstrates that the Colbert team recognizes that one of the problems of the left in the Bush years was an inability to find ways to speak truth to power because they were too busy deconstructing what “truth” and “power” and “speaking” “really” meant. He and Jon Stewart have done an excellent job on this point—and it has had an influence, I believe, in redefining the ways that today’s left can envision a critique of the right’s representational strategies without falling into nihilism. They rescue the politically productive elements of postmodern critique without falling into the trap of refusing to take an ethical stand on issues of vital importance.
I’d like to focus on the issue of whether comedy can really affect the course of politics. Both Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart seem to deny it, and you include Stewart quoting Peter Cook sarcastically noting out that the great satirists of the Weimar cabaret “really stopped Hitler in his tracks.” Cook may be right for the most repressive regimes, but in a democratic one, where the comics aren’t killed, there may be more possibility. You hedge a bit in the book, but personally: do you believe that Stephen can actually effect change with comedy?
I think he already has. Take the example of the SuperPac. Colbert taught his audience how they work, revealed their inherently anti-democratic nature, and led to a whole host of activism connected to campaign reform. Even Nancy Pelosi, who had advised Representatives to avoid talking to Colbert, came around and sought Colbert’s support for her campaign finance initiative. This is the biggest and best example — because it is one where we can show pretty close cause and effect.
Another example from recent shows, but one where the line is a bit harder to draw from Colbert to public opinion, is the way that he has called attention to the prejudice and discrimination connected to gay marriage debates. He has been very successful in revealing the hypocrisy and intolerance of anti-gay rhetoric. And polling shows that for young voters the right’s stand on gay marriage is a major turnoff. Colbert has consistently reminded his audience that the LGBT community is part of this democracy and they deserve the same rights as everyone else—and he has done it by making those that oppose those rights seem like fools. It is hard not to see that as an example of comedy with a political impact.
Related to that, I wonder if you feel that Colbert’s increasing move toward real interaction with politics—including testifying before Congress, establishing the SuperPac and funding the South Carolina primary—is due to the fact that he feels he has to get ever closer to the “real” centers of power in order to make a difference. Perhaps just satirizing them on the show isn’t enough. But, as with the WHCD he’s receiving a lot of criticism for making a mockery of serious matters. At the end of the book you examine some arguments for and against Colbert’s more overt entrance on the political stage. What’s your opinion on this?
This, of course, is the big question. Could Colbert inadvertently make a mockery of politics with his stunts? And many on the left are worried that he might. My thinking is that there are some risks and we would be foolish not to see them — these are the risks that young people would lose any respect for the democratic process at all, that they would become even more apathetic and disgusted, and that Colbert’s comedy would make it even harder for the public to see what “real” political action looks like.
But my opinion is that, despite some real risks, these are really the wrong questions to ask. I mean if people FORGET that Colbert is a comedian is that his fault? If they get their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central whose “fault” is that? If it turns out that we learn more when we watch Stewart and
Colbert (as a Pew study showed), then it seems crazy to fault the comedians or to expect them to become serious journalists. If things get blurry that is good because it makes the public THINK, and anytime we have to think and ask questions and draw our own conclusions democracy is healthier.
When folks ask whether Colbert and Stewart are hurting the system by mocking it, they forget that the system is already a mockery and all the comedians are doing is exposing it. You can’t blame Stewart and Colbert for the failures of government, of media, or of the public. Their comedy may well be one of the prime reasons that we are even talking about these issues. The more we talk about them, the better.
Best parallel would be Ben Franklin — folks seemed to do OK with seeing him REALLY move between satire and politics. If Ben Franklin could do it, why shouldn’t Colbert?
How do you think the “cult of personality” that you write about—and that Colbert has referred to—affects his political effectiveness? While it gets people to follow him … well, it gets people to follow him because he’s HIM. Do you see that as a problem in how his audience translates his critique into actual action? You do refer, at one point, to the “all-too-convincing” persona he takes on and the failure of some viewers to distinguish between the man from the character.
Great question. This issue, in my opinion, is trickier than the mixing politics with satire one we talked about above. The cult of personality connected to the show and to the Colbert persona is harder to pin down in terms of its effects on engaging critical thinking and supporting a healthy democracy.
We know, for instance, that viewers from a far broader political spectrum can watch The Colbert Report and enjoy it than can watch The Daily Show. This is because the in-character satire is far more complex – Colbert says things in character he doesn’t believe out of character—than what happens with Stewart — who tends to call attention to something crazy happening in politics then point to it with a big WTF. So some viewers can watch Colbert and seem to ignore or gloss over the disconnect between what he is saying and what he thinks. And this is made even more complicated by his extraordinary charisma and charm.
And – even more— it turns out the Colbert and his team have often been surprised by fan responses that have exceeded any of their expectations. Recall that the website that launched the viral video of the WHCA Dinner was fan driven, and the original Colbert Nation website was also created by a fan. More recently the idea of creating mini Colbert SuperPacs came from a fan, Howie Benefiel at UT Austin, who emailed Colbert asking to create Texans for a better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
What does all of this personality driven power mean? And how dangerous might it be? Part of the reason why the power exists is because Colbert really is an amazing public figure. And part of it exists because he has really cultivated it as part of his parody of punditry — he is emulating the personality cults of figures like Beck and O’Reilly. The possibility that he is actually boosting personality-driven politics is a real issue – but in the end I think it is an inevitable consequence of the sort of satire he does.
He critiques personality-driven politics by parodying it. But he also is an extraordinary personality and his charisma has helped him build a huge fan base. There is a tricky
disconnect there. In the end, though, I think that the real reason we don’t need to worry about a negative impact of his personality on his fans is simply because of the difference between him and some of the pundits he parodies. Sure he wants more viewers and more dedicated fans — but in the end his political motives are to restore and enrich our democracy, to foster critical thinking, and to call out the negative tendencies he sees plaguing our society. So if he inadvertently creates some fans that are just mindless sheep, which can happen with any celebrity, then at least they are following aleader with a good cause!
Interestingly, one subject you don’t really speak about in terms of Colbert’s public pedagogy is science. His show is certainly in the forefront when it comes to bringing scientific discussions and breakthroughs to a mass audience. Additionally, because such things as evolution are under fire by the extreme right wing, there’s a political dimension to this presentation of scientific fact. How do you think this would fit into your argument?
This is a really good point and it is a central feature of the show. In a way it all connects back to the show’s “thesis statement” of truthiness. Colbert’s show has really worked
hard at exposing the ways that the assault on the ideas of truth and fact has damaged the nation. And one of the prime arenas where we have seen that has been in the realm of science and in debates over evolution, the climate, and health. Colbert has been a real champion for the scientific community – bringing noted scientists on to talk about their work and allowing them to refute many of the extreme right wing positions that are so constantly repeated in the mainstream news media. There is a political dimension to all of this, of course, since we have seen the Republican Party in recent years really turn against science—defunding it, attacking it, ignoring it, and confusing it with religious beliefs. Colbert has done a great job of calling out the absurdities of the anti-science positions espoused by the right wing.
You write about Colbert’s Wikipedia stunt, where he asked his viewers to change the Wikipedia entry to say that the number of African elephants had increased (when it fact it hadn’t). One thing you don’t mention is that the actual science of this particular topic — ecology and environmentalism — was one of the main areas manipulated by the Bush administration. How much do you think his choice of subject was influenced by that? I wonder, as well, if you think Stephen might also have been trying to illustrate the power a charismatic leader has to subvert reality? Do you feel that many of the people who changed the Wikipedia site understood how damaging that type of lie could be if it weren’t done by someone like Stephen?
Yes — I totally agree. The Wikipedia stunt did a lot of things at the same time. It launched the idea of “wikiality” –a kindred concept to truthiness, but one which also showed the power of the people to create the ideas that are central to a society. It also revealed the tricky power of a strong personality that can mobilize a fan base to do what he says. My reading of the event, though, was that it was also a major way to show fans how much power they had. Colbert was not the first person to teach the pubic that the internet offered forms of activism and political power –but he certainly was one of the first celerity personalities to launch internet activism via a TV show on cable.
I think the question of what fans are thinking when they follow Colbert’s calls to action goes back to the cult of personality question above. The research on viewer responses to Colbert shows that his viewer’s critical abilities to understand what he is doing are mixed. Not everyone “gets it” to the same degree. But when you are talking about a show with 1 million viewers a night, that range is really to be expected.
You discuss the nature of television as a medium; in particular you cite the work of Neil Postman (author of Amusing Ourselves to Death) who basically wrote off TV as an inherently passive medium in comparison to reading, for example. He asserted that TV simply could not create an active and politically engaged spectator. To counter him, you point to the changed context of contemporary TV viewing and how it’s now “linked to more active media” like the Internet. But I have a problem with Postman’s very thesis, and his dismissal of images. One example I’d give: the anti-Vietnam War movement which absolutely and justifiably was galvanized by the images shown on TV. And both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show make great use of TV’s potential to play wittily with the juxtaposition of words and pictures. While I would never dismiss the power of the Internet, do you feel that watching The Colbert Report itself, without that presumably more active context, would have been necessarily passive?
No, definitely not. The nature of the satire on The Colbert Report is inherently critical and it encourages the viewer to think—whether or not they interact with the show via
the internet. Images can be powerful catalysts for critical thinking, as you mention in the case of the photos shown from Viet Nam. And programs like The Daily Show and The
Colbert Report use images as a counterpoint to the text and language, a combination that requires a degree of active viewer engagement.
In all fairness to Postman, though, he was not writing about satire TV, a TV form that is inherently more complex than most. He was, as you rightly note, dismissive of the power of images shown on TV, but my sense of his thesis is that he was very much concerned with the transition that takes place when information comes at the viewer passively, rather than allowing the reader to take in a piece on their own terms — looking at accompanying photos, for instance, for as long as they wish. The rhythm of the flow of information as something controlled for the viewer was at the heart of his worries and my point was that TV is quite different today. Research suggests that watching TV — on a TV during scheduled programming — is an increasingly smaller percentage of current practices of media consumption across all age groups. When Postman wrote his book people watched scheduled shows at scheduled times and that was that. It really was a different era.
You end the introduction with the question: “Stephen Colbert: Great satirist … or greatest satirist?” You say that you hope we will have our own answer after reading the book. But what is YOUR answer?
You mean you haven’t guessed it already?
A big thank you to Sophia McClennen for taking the time out to talk to us!!