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How Stephen Colbert Saved America

Bob Chipman | 15 Dec 2014 12:00
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The Colbert Report may be coming to a close this week, but its influence on pop culture isn't going anywhere.

The following is the opinion of the author and author alone.

On Thursday of this week, December 18th, what is either the first- or second-most important TV show of the early-millenium will end as Stephen Colbert signs off on The Colbert Report for the last time, in preparation for his elevation to David Letterman's successor as host of CBS' The Late Show.

This is, in no small terms, the end of an era. The Colbert Report ran for just under a decade on Comedy Central, and in doing so affected a level of change and influence on the popular culture and -- through its relentless dressing-down of political hackwork -- on 21st century American society itself. The only work of television that can lay even close to a similar claim is The Daily Show, the well from whence The Report sprung in the first place.

It's impossible to talk about Colbert's place in history without first talking about Jon Stewart's Daily Show, but the two have profoundly differing circumstances of origin that made all the difference. In many ways, Daily had greatness thrust upon it and rose to the occasion. Under Stewart's, er... "Stewartship," the show pre-2001 had what seemed like an easy task: Swat the low-hanging fruit of foul-ups, bias and all-around foolish behavior of the "serious" American news media.

But in the immediate post-9/11 landscape, that role imbued it with an unexpected (perhaps accidental) position of honor. With the rest of the media often seeming cowed into deference over issues like the Iraq war, Gitmo and rest of the Bush Administration's myriad follies for fear of being branded "traitors" to the memories of 9/11 martyrs, Daily's broad "news of the day" mockery suddenly felt like a radical act. This was particularly true to a generation of young would-be voters who came to view Stewart and Company as being (if only by default) the only trustworthy news source of TV... the only voices that seemed willing to look at the endlessly ridicule-worthy media and politics of The Bush Years and say, simply and honestly, "This is ridiculous."

But while The Daily Show lived to carpet-bomb the foibles of the press (mainly cable news networks) as a whole, correspondent Colbert's spin-off would take the form of a surgical-strike -- a dagger directly to the heart of the American news media's worst offender: The Fox News Channel and its then star-attraction, Bill O'Reilly.

Effectively a 24-hour mouthpiece for the right-wing political views of Newscorp/Fox boss Rupert Murdoch, Fox News was effectively a non-entity until 9/11 gave it an identity (in the form of unironic militaristic-cheerleading bombast slathered in eagles and flags) and a role as Palace Guard for the Bush Administration. To call the Fox of the early-00s simply right-wing or "conservative" is to do disservice to those philosophies -- Fox's ideology was whatever The Administration said it was, gussied up and rebranded as "love it or leave it"-style American Patriotism.

That's why Bill O'Reilly was the perfect Fox host of the era: A blathering bully with no discernible logic behind his beliefs beyond personal hangups and a vague commitment to the cartoonish mythology of the "better America" of the 1950s. He was the perfect figurehead for spewing blatantly-contradictory arguments ("The government must be SMALL!" "...but not small enough that it can't tap your phone without cause if you're a 'suspicious' race, creed or religion!") without looking like he ever once comprehended the contradiction. The present-day O'Reilly has mellowed a bit -- he's now just one more smug TV huckster peddling "historical" books and tacky merchandise -- but in his heyday there was no media figure who drove comedy-writers to greater frustration. How do you parody something so worthy of parody, when the subject is such an obvious buffoon that the only "joke" to be made is to anguish over how it's possible that the man's (O'Reilly's) audience doesn't seem to grasp how much of a joke he is?

Stephen Colbert's simple, deft answer? He didn't parody. Or mock. Or even really exaggerate. He embraced the O'Reillyness and Foxness of his targets. That was the subtle genius evident from the beginning of the series: The Colbert Report borrowed Fox's superficial slather of pop-art patriotism and O'Reilly's bullheaded patrician righteousness and simply, matter of factly... "displayed" them.

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