“CBS has just declared war on the Heartland of America. No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatives,” raved Rush Limbaugh Thursday in response CBS’s recent announcement. “Now it’s just wide out in the open … They’ve hired a partisan, so-called comedian to run a comedy show. So that’s what I think. Cool. Fine. Satisfied?”
Limbaugh’s typically disgruntled (but nonetheless hilarious) reaction represents one of three responses I would expect to hear about Stephen Colbert’s succession of David Letterman’s spot on the soon to be renamed Late Show. The others would be a mixture of laughing and clapping and mildly amused apathy. But Limbaugh’s characteristic vitriol is definitely the most entertaining of the three, and CBS will be hearing plenty of it in the near future.
On the other hand, I cannot help but applaud the cojones it takes to make such a bold move. Colbert is a force to be reckoned with in both media and politics. Although I have to admit I had even higher, more political hopes for Colbert’s future, hosting one of America’s most watched TV shows is definitely an accomplishment worthy of his talents. Colbert’s unbridled sarcasm has been a bit of a wake up call for many Americans. Thousands initially thought that Colbert really was conservative, up to the point that he was invited to make his memorable speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner during the Bush presidency.
But his outlandish style has done more than expose gullible conservatives. Colbert, along with Jon Stewart, has been one of the driving forces in all of the media to unearth the truth about the state of political operation in our country. After all, when most try to talk about the questionability of the motives, and possible fabrication of evidence, for the War on Terror, it’s usually met with derision and labeled “conspiracy nonsense.” Only through sarcasm and comedy have we been able to come to terms with the state of things as they are without being completely overwhelmed by its absurdity.
Colbert, on the other hand, does what good art should do: he makes the truth known by using his words, actions, and persona to reveal it, to expose it flagrantly and jump up and down in the air waving and pointing at it, rather than simply declare it and hope that it rings true. Because let’s be honest, people don’t always believe or absorb what they’re told when it’s given to them in straightforward fashion; they need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. There’s a reason we use games and metaphors and real-life applications to teach kids math and science: we don’t learn when we are simply told, but rather when we have something demonstrated for us.
And Colbert succeeds so brutally where traditional reporting fails at demonstrating just how outmoded, baseless, and downright pathetic neo-conservative politics in this country really are. He makes a fairly brutal implicit joke of the fact that his false persona is, quite literally, how much of the world perceives American conservatives. When you come to see his performance in that light, it’s actually rather shocking and disturbing that this is a force that we allow to fester in our political reality.
His outing of the true nature of SuperPACs, what they entail for corporate interests and their impact on the outcome of presidential campaigns was equally shocking, and perhaps the most important thing Colbert has done to date. Without Colbert and the exposure he brought to the issue, this may have gone down as just another piece of unimportant election legislation that only made any sense to the bureaucrats who passed it.
He gained even more exposure for the issue when he won a George Foster Peabody Award for his work on the matter and thanks to Colbert, awareness has spread and will (hopefully) help to reverse this backwards legislation of corruption when the time is right.
And that, after all, is the true goal of art: to draw attention to what really matters. I would say that Stephen Colbert is, more than David Letterman, or Jon Stewart, or certainly Rush Limbaugh, an artist: his show is not just reporting with a faux-professional mask, it is a real performance and while virtually every news anchor since the 50’s has been more actor than reporter, it would be more of a stretch than I’m comfortable with to label their accomplishments as artistic in nature. Colbert, on the other hand, manages to be more entertaining while actually garnering more genuine interest for the issues he discusses.
This is the real reason that CBS has chosen Colbert. Despite my own hopes for Colbert, which would be a stage with increased political exposure, the Late Show is ultimately where he will do the most good. When people tune in to watch Colbert for the first time, it will be an artistic homecoming for comedy. Colbert has the uncanny ability to address the most depressing issues our country faces with buoyancy and wit that makes politics less scary.
Now, instead of sauntering down into the predictable mundanity of whizzbang noises, drum rolls and dry, self-mockingly futile escapism, America will indulge in true comedy: not some half-assed attempt to distract ourselves, but a brave outlook on the world, willing to tackle the political issues that keep the more serious-minded of us up at night, using memorable humor that makes the issues easier to talk about, instead of simply encouraging us to hear the facts and run scared from them, as we have for so many generations.
After all, look where it’s gotten us: war after war, economic collapse, and corruption buried like annoying fleas in the convoluted bureaucratic hairball that is the US government. If you ask me, Colbert is the draft of fresh air that late night audiences need to remind us that the truth is not as scary as we sometimes think. The weather is usually pretty nice, but we have to keep an eye out for storms.
So turn off your mental AC and open the window: Colbert’s coming, baby.