One Nation Under Stephen

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I felt a delicious chill as I read the news that Stephen Colbert is running for President. (He made his announcement on Tuesday’s edition of The Colbert Report, the half-hour news and interview program he hosts on Comedy Central.) Why a chill? For all that I enjoy and respect Colbert, he has always prompted in me a faint feeling of vertigo. Watching his comedy is like staring into a deep well or over the side of a tall building: you get the itchy feeling in your legs of wanting to jump, to give yourself up to gravity and the abyss, obliterating yourself and all that you hold dear. Colbert’s impersonation of a rabidly right-wing, plummily egotistical media pundit is so polished and impenetrable that it stops being a joke and moves into more uncannily undecidable territory: simulation, automaton, a doll that has come to life. Unlike Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Colbert’s satire doesn’t have a target, but becomes the target, triggering a collapse of categories, an implosion, a joke that eats itself and leaves its audience less thrilled than simply unsure (cf. Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, at which he mapped uneasy smiles and half-frowns across a roomful of Republican faces).

Judging from Colbert’s offstage discussion of his work, like his recent interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air, he’s a modest, sensible, reflective guy, able to view his Report persona with wit and detachment even as he delights in using it to generate ever more extreme, Dada-like interventions in popular and political culture — his Wikipedia mischief being only one instance. My half-serious worry is that with his latest move, he’s unleashed something far bigger than he knows or can control. The decision to place himself on the 2008 Presidential ballot, even if only in South Carolina, has been received by the mainstream media primarily as another ironic turn of the comedy-imitates-reality-imitates-art cycle, noting the echo of Robin Williams’s Man of the Year (2006) and comedian Pat Paulsen’s bid for the White House in 1968. But I think the more accurate and alarming comparison might be Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, the character played by Andy Griffith in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). In that film, Rhodes goes from being a bumpkinish caricature on a television variety show to a populist demagogue, drunk on his own power and finally revealed as a hollow shell, a moral vacuum. The unsubtle message of Kazan’s film is that TV’s pervasive influence makes it a tool for our most destructive collective tendencies — a nation of viewers whose appetite for entertainment leads them to eagerly embrace fascism.

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I’d be lying — or at least being flippant — if I claimed to believe that Colbert could be another “Lonesome” Rhodes. I’m neither that cynical about our culture nor that paranoid about the power of media. But given that we live in an era when the opportunities for self-organizing social movements have multiplied profoundly through the agency of the internet, who is to say where Colbert’s campaign comedy will mutate smoothly into something more genuine? Maybe he is, at this moment in history, the perfect protest candidate, smoother and more telegenic than Nader and Perot by orders of magnitude. He just might win South Carolina. And if that happens … what next?

13 thoughts on “One Nation Under Stephen

  1. He’s my VP to Stewart as Pres., so I couldn’t in clear conscience vote for him 😉 But I’m not allowed to vote anyway: I can pay the taxes, just not determine what’s done with them. Seriously, though, fake or joke candidates are a rich part of many foreign democracies. England’s Monster Raving Loony Party was led for many years by the Screaming Lord Such, till he died; his party announced afterwards that no human could replace Lord Sutch … so they nominated Sutch’s cat. Canada’s Rhino Party was a fav of mine, with promises to repeal the law of gravity, flatten the Rockies, so one could coast from coast to coast (and since they ruin easterners’ view of the Pacific), and using free air time on TV (what an idea, eh? free air time. We Canadians are peculiar) to say just two things: Celery and Sidewalk. I actually like the institution, since it provides a way to start to quantify disgust with the political system, as distinguished from pure avoidance of voting. But joke candidates have rarely garnered more than a few votes. With nightly ratings of about a million or so, he’s not much of a threat.

    I’m currently editing a collection (with Jeffrey Jones and Ethan Thompson) on TV satire, and Geoffrey Baym has a wonderful read on Colbert. I’ll try to get him to drop by and respond.

  2. Ah, but is the concept of a “nightly audience” viable in current times? What’s Colbert’s YouTube and torrent audience? My sense is that with Colbert we may be looking at the first truly viral candidate — one who, moreover, rides the crest of a wave of crossover news-comedy-commentary-critique. The (perhaps questionable) truism is that most college-aged students get their news from Jon Stewart; what if this demographic fuses with disaffected, older, more active voters looking for a way to express their unhappiness with both parties? (Let’s not forget that, between them, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report map the right/left spectrum, or at least a simplified, editorial-cartoon version of it.)

    Again, I’m not trying to jangle the alarm bell prematurely. I’m just curious to see what happens in ’08 as ossified modes of campaigning encounter a perfect storm of transmediation, virality, collective intelligence — grassroots 2.0.

  3. But they don’t map the r/l spectrum, since Colbert only *plays* a rightwing demagogue. “The Word” makes this clear, as his talking points undercut his performed politics at every turn, as does his interviewee choice — he tends to bring on people who can correct his absurd politics … or he agrees with rightwingers only in the same way that Borat agrees with a Cambridge prof that women aren’t smart enough to succeed at university. South Park and The Simpsons, I’d say, allow significantly more room for rightwingers to engage and identify as well as leftwingers, but Colbert isn’t even Archie Bunker, allowing you to laugh with or at him, because he adopts blatantly absurd platitudes (“facts have a liberal agenda,” “I’ve never trusted books,” etc.) that don’t allow identification, except through comic inversion.

    Point taken re: his audience being larger than Nielsen shows, but I’d still imagine that to care about him enough to go out to vote for him, you’d need to be more than just a casual viewer or someone who watches some clips on IFilm. By comparison, though this is hardly a scientific sample, the only people I know who vote for American Idol are regular fan viewers … and there the voting is by phone and in an entertainment frame (ie: easier and coded as less important).

  4. Good points, Jon … you’re helping to assuage my worries. (Those worries themselves are interesting to me — when did I turn into such a good-old-days-citing curmudgeon?)

    As for you, Mike, dare I ask what you’ve got against Hillary?

  5. btw, Bob, don’t worry, if O’Reilly ever runs, I’ll find you and your wife Canadians or Australians to marry for citizenship so you can get out of dodge before the heavens collapse 😉

  6. Funny you post on this too. I think his fictional candidacy is hysterical, really. What I really LOVE about Colbert is his ability to mobilize the masses by using whatever technology is available to him. That alone is sheer power.

    Having said that, it is a good thing he is a comedian and NOT a politician. Imagine what he can do if he were a real politician and had real power. He already *scares* people with his satirical knife (a lot of republicans are afraid to even show up on his show), he would be ruthless if he actually had real power. Which is, in a way, good in the sense that politicians have someone to *worry* about, I think.

    More importantly, I think he does a fantastic job in holding the mirror to us, the American people, and show us who we really are. This might be the reason why you’re getting the chills. Surely, this is the most unsettling part of his show. It is not just late show comedy, but we know it exists. People whom Colbert impersonates *are* currently in the office and they have to power that Colbert doesn’t exactly have. It’s one thing jamming Wikipedia or having a bridge named after yourself in some foreign country, and quite another to take the country to war.

    We shouldn’t give in to worry or fear. We should face it and overcome it, I think.

  7. BTW, was it on his show or on Daily Show, I can’t remember. But the host interviewed an author who published a book that showed that the current US politics fit the bill on what had happened prior to fascism in other countries. Unfortunately, I forgot her name, but she outlines this blueprint that nations follow before fascism and we happen to hit almost all of them.

    As you say, scary, but this should encourage us to take some kind of action.

  8. Well said on all counts, Burcu!

    (Though when you write that it’s “a good thing [Colbert] is a comedian and NOT a politician,” I wonder: isn’t much comedy political — and much politics comedic — in their way?)

  9. I won’t vote for Hillary in the general election because (1) she bungled healthcare reform, (2) she voted for the war, (3) she represents the failed liberalism of the preceding generation–we need a new approach to progressive politics, (4) I fear and loathe her combination of self-righteousness and ambition, (5) I hate the way the Democratic leadership is conspiring to give her the nomination before the first primary has even been held.

    If she wins, she could very well discredit left-wing politics as thoroughly as Bush-Cheney has discredited neoconservatism. But she won’t win, unless the GOP nominates a toad like Fred Thompson. I dislike her, and I’m a Democrat. Independents and Republicans despise her.

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