The magic of Stephen Colbert's rapport

Monday, June 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:46 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 22, 2009

“This house resolves: The entertaining hypocrite is more useful than the honest bore.”

Such was the resolution that three teachers, including me, and three students were set to debate. The teachers were predictably assigned to oppose the resolution, to uphold the honest bores. The teachers also predictably lost, as the farcical debate was held for entertainment’s sake — and who wants to see teachers outside of class if they’re not going to take a few (at least metaphorical) pies to the face?

But if I could have argued honestly, albeit somewhat boringly, I wouldn’t have taken either side. I would have said that the world needs both at once, and I can’t think of a man who better evinces why than Stephen Colbert, the eponymous newsman-satirist of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” He is the spoonful of hypocritical sugar that makes people swallow current affairs.

The news, while important, is also often boring. This is partly because it’s hard to sympathize with people who are in far away places doing or facing unfamiliar things — any writer worth their ink knows you can’t keep an audience without relatable characters — and part of it is the repetition.

The same subject matter and people tend to recur; the same emotions and intellect are drawn on in countless news forums with equitable formats. A former president of the American Journalism Review pointed out the latter problem in a piece titled Why Are so Many Newspapers Boring?”: “Newspapers are dull. They’re losing their touch,” he wrote. “Excessive formatting, standardization and order have made papers duller. Boring. Bore, bore, bore.”

Through a satirical lens, however, the subject matter and our reactions to it have the potential to stay fresh. Satire, beyond parody or farce, is more than imitation and exaggeration; it exposes human vices and shortcomings through ridicule and irony, ideally in a way that will bring about improvement. So when true-blue news is presented satirically, the folly-filled facts of the world stop being tiresome and become information that can teach and delight.

That satirical transformation is something that happens every night on “The Colbert Report,” as the self-titled Sir Dr. Stephen Colbert, D.F.A., delivers the day’s news through the mouth of his ultra-conservative, egocentric, sassy-pants character. And it’s helping to make the world a less stupid place. According to a Pew Research Center study, 54 percent of people who regularly watch "The Daily Show" and “The Colbert Report” rank “high” in knowledge of current affairs, compared to the nationwide average of 35 percent.  

As if regularly disseminating that much knowledge wasn’t enough, Colbert recently used satire to perform an even greater feat, one no honest, heartfelt appeal could do. He directed America’s long-expired attention spans back toward the oldest, most boring news around — that there’s a war in Iraq — and kept it there for weeks.   

In addition to performing shows from Iraq, he guest-edited the June 15 issue of “Newsweek,” on the cover of which the word “Iraq” is being shaved into his head. His “editing” is hilarious and irreverent. The first page of readers’ letters, for example, is given over to Colbert’s “unpublished” ones, the topics of which are broken down in a chart at the top of the page: 33 percent are about Newsweek’s liberal bias, 28 percent call for “More Reagan!” and 1 percent comprises misrouted “Penthouse” letters.   

Beyond that, though, it’s chock full of honest, important features about a tired topic, features that people might actually stick around to read after getting their laughs in the front of the book. As Colbert explains in his editor’s letter, he wanted to direct people’s attention to those “who’ve been touched by (the war), from the citizens in Iraq to the cadets at West Point.”

True to the exercise, his statement of this purpose is buried at the end of his address, after eight thickly ironic paragraphs hinting at his aim. But Colbert's eventual admittance that he sincerely cares about the war is the honest bore shining through, despite the layers of entertaining hypocrite that he spends so much time shellacking on top.

Such satire does, admittedly, come with a big potential drawback. People might not read to the end; people might not get the joke. An Ohio State University study titled “The Irony of Satire” recently showed that many conservatives in Colbert’s audience think his maniacal, right-wing caricature is no character at all.

While people of all creeds found him funny, the study’s conductors explained, conservatives were more likely to report that “Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said.” And Colbert is a man who once called on his show for Rosa Parks’ children to apologize “for what she did to that bus company” and opined, “George Bush: Great president or greatest president?”

That said, it’s possible that those people would be lost causes regardless, without, say, the invention of some revolutionary skull-thinning device.     

Dolts aside, it’s clear that this man — a man whom I would love to see debate himself about whether the honest bore or entertaining hypocrite was of more use — is making the world a better place, so let’s give a little back. You’ll get more than 8,600 results if you search for “Iraq” on Newsweek’s Web site. Reading one would be a start.

And if you’re feeling really ambitious, come back and post about what you learned. I promise to issue letter grades with the flair and draconian whim of Stephen Colbert.  


Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.


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Sapphire Thomas June 22, 2009 | 6:38 p.m.

Good article, but I noticed one little thing, in this line:

'And Colbert is a man who once called on his show for Rosa Parks’ children to apologize “for what she did to that bus company”'

I'm pretty sure he only said that when he visited Conan O'Brians show, not his own. And, of course, Conan promptly fake-shot him for it. Besides that, great article!

(Report Comment)
jeff nikosey June 22, 2009 | 8:45 p.m.

Great article. Well thought and interesting from first word to the last.

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