New book “Colbert’s America” argues Stephen Colbert’s humor transcends entertainment, has real political impact
Stephen Colbert has attracted a loyal following playing a fictional conservative talk show host offering his take on news and politics on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” But as the presidential election nears, one of the Sunday talk shows wanted to hear what Colbert had to say. He appeared as both his character and the “real” Stephen Colbert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, telling host David Gregory he’s not a news man or a politician, but “likes playing political games to see what really happens.”
But some say Colbert’s Emmy and Peabody award-winning show has transcended entertainment and had a major impact on the political landscape. Penn State Prof. Sophia A. McClennen argues just that in her new book, “Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy.” We talked to her about how Colbert’s special brand of comedy stands out from the pack.
FOX411: What motivated you to write this book?
Sophia McClennen: I had a friend show me Stephen Colbert’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006 on the Internet. The performance was so exciting in the message he was getting out there, the comedy of it, the proximity of him to the President, that it sparked interest in him as a comedian and a satirist. I started watching the show and thought, ‘there’s a lot going on here.’ It isn’t just fun, there’s a lot of complexity to this comedy and I decided to try to analyze it.
FOX411: As we get closer to Election Day, do you think Colbert’s show will influence voting?
SM: We know that during conventions both Jon Stewart’s and Colbert’s shows bumped in viewers. The way these guys are informing the U.S. public is appealing to voters. A lot about this election will hinge on young voters, and we know young voters came out in favor of President Obama in 2008. What people don’t know is whether those young people who voted for Obama in 2008 will vote again.
FOX411: Do both Republicans and Democrats think he’s funny, or is Colbert’s humor partisan?
SM: Colbert appeals to a much broader political spectrum than Stewart…. Colbert’s charisma also helps him. Stewart will annoy people who disagree with him, but Colbert is the kind of person that most people just want to be around.
FOX411: Does it matter who wins in November, as far as the show’s success or quantity of material?
SM: If Romney’s elected, these shows will be invigorated by having a lot to say. But Colbert and Stewart are prepared to go after Democrats when they’re making mistakes. They have a lot of fun with media too, especially morning shows. The shows have enough material to go on for years, regardless of who wins the election.
FOX411: Besides your book, there are college courses, a Virgin jet, even a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor named after Colbert. How do you think he feels about all the attention?
SM: There’s no doubt that “Colbert the persona” is a massive egomaniac and thinks we should all worship Colbert because it’s good for our country (laughs.) He even has a segment on his show, “Who’s Honoring Me Now?” He loves to work that angle because it allows him to do this form of critique about the nature of punditry and the power it’s had over the public, and influence it’s had on our ability to distance ourselves from the hero worship. It’s difficult to know what Colbert the man thinks about all the attention. I’m sure he’s conflicted. In interviews when he’s been out of character, he’s said this is tricky stuff.
FOX411: You argue that Colbert has not only exposed some truths about politics and government but also encouraged people to do something about it. Why do you think he has that influence?
SM: What Colbert is doing for our democracy is unparalleled. He reaches out to young people, he encourages critical thinking, and he’s teaching young people that you can be critical of your government, and vote, and care and be cool. And that’s fun! It’s really refreshing. Colbert’s is a different kind of political activism and it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen. He’s mobilized his audience to do things. That’s really powerful. We’ve never really seen a comedian have that kind of impact. Sometimes he mobilizes them to do really stupid things like changing Wikipedia entries on the extinction of elephants (laughs.) But a big example is getting people to contribute to his Super PAC and having fans start their own Super PACs…. Colbert is very responsible for driving the public awareness of how Super PACs work. If you think about the role of campaign finance in our democracy and that many politicians and journalists have tried for years to get the public aware of how this works, its Colbert’s process -- the fact that he did it publicly -- that basically gave us a lesson in civics.
(Editor’s note: Colbert’s Super PAC (Political Action Committee), "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Inc." had raised more than a million dollars in donations in January. While contributions have declined in recent months, according to a Federal Election Commission report, the fund still has more than $775,000.)
FOX411: After your research for the book, what are some of your favorite Colbert-isms?
SM: I love the opening sequence when he gets the words swirling around his body. A lot of those particular words are fun… like megaAmerican, ballsalicious, superstancial (laughs.) If you’re a word geek, they’re all awesome, hilarious and smart at the same time.