In 2006, Stephen Colbert was scheduled to perform at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Having been the host of “The Colbert Report” for less than a year at that point, it was a defining moment for the comedian. Speaking in front of President George W. Bush, Colbert held nothing back. Referring to the president’s approval ratings, he said, “Sir, pay no attention to the people who say the glass is half empty, because 32 percent means it’s two-thirds empty. There’s still some liquid in that glass is my point, but I wouldn’t drink it. The last third is usually backwash.” If ever a moment encapsulated the Colbert’s ethos, that was it.
While his mentor Jon Stewart succeeded as a comic delivering politically-pointed jokes night in and night out, Colbert went even further to satirize the nation’s right-wing fringe by embodying its most absurd elements.
When CBS announced that Colbert would replace David Letterman as the host of “Late Show” in 2015, it became apparent that “Stephen Colbert” the character was in his final days. While it is undoubtedly a beneficial move for Stephen Colbert the person, the world is losing one of the most important satirists of all time.
It may sound hyperbolic, but Colbert has done more for the medium of satire than anyone else in recent memory. The key to understanding the difference between his satire and that of other commentators such as Stewart and Bill Maher lies in his unique presentation.
By fully committing himself to this character that truly believes everything he’s saying, no matter how ridiculous, Colbert illuminates the thought processes behind the people who actually believe what he’s saying. While Stewart and Maher rely on snarky jokes to make their viewers question how anyone could subscribe to the regressive politics of the GOP, Colbert explains it by offering up a funhouse-mirror version of those who earnestly ascribe themselves to these beliefs and walking us through their twisted logic.
It is nothing if not fortuitous that Colbert’s rise to stardom coincided with Barack Obama’s presidency, an administration during which the GOP grew increasingly extreme in rhetoric. Amidst unfounded questions over the president’s birth certificate, a non-scandal out of Benghazi and everything in between, Colbert has been there, not to make fun of conservatives crying wolf, but to deflate them by way of imitation. He delegitimized those who should have never earned legitimacy in the first place. In his absence, their words will carry more sway than they ever should.
Colbert’s power to transform one’s mentality worked both ways – the 2013 segment where Colbert traveled to the small, Appalachian town of Vicco, Ky. comes to mind. The segment focused on the town’s enthusiastic support for its openly gay mayor, Johnny Cummings, and the LGBTQ-plus Fairness ordinance he passed.
This segment challenged the perception of small-town America as being exclusively close-minded and intolerant. Local residents discussed how great of a mayor Cummings is and how his sexuality is completely irrelevant to any of them. All the while, Colbert tried to goad them into fulfilling the stereotype of a homophobic hillbilly.
“Late Show” will make it exceedingly difficult for Colbert to present his unique brand of challenging, yet accessible humor. He is a talented performer and will likely succeed in this new capacity, but his contributions to the medium of satire will be sorely missed.