In the November issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum wrote, “The weakest set of candidates in living memory has taken the field, and we still have more than a year left of watching these people, lumbering and blumbering toward the goal line.”
I thought it wrong at the time, for the dark horizon had a new blazing star: Stephen T. Colbert. But last Monday, a dolorous day in America’s history, the Democratic party of South Carolina burst my hopes and denied Colbert a spot on their ballot. Bottum’s pessimism was right after all. Back to the blumber for the lot of us.
As many readers will know, until the South Carolina Democrats shot him down, the former liturgical dancer and Daily Show reporter was trying to run for president as a favorite son of South Carolina, with a campaign sponsored by Doritos tortilla chips. On the off-chance that some do not know, “Stephen Colbert” is the satirical character of a comedian named Stephen Colbert. He got his start on the minor comedy shows Exit 57 and Strangers with Candy before being drafted for Comedy Central’s fake-news program The Daily Show. While on the show, Colbert covered the 2000 and 2004 elections and hosted the weekly religious news segment “This Week in God.” He became known for his deadpan delivery and his thought-proof right-wing commentary.
In 2005, the producers at Comedy Central decided to give Colbert his own show, The Colbert Report (Report pronounced like his last name, with the final t silent). In the transition, Colbert’s character got a louder mouth and a harder edge. Every episode of the Report begins with a screaming eagle flying over a sea of American flags and pictures of Colbert’s face. The show is a mocking homage to stentorian conservative punditry, especially that of Bill O’Reilly.
This year, in the show’s third season, Colbert advanced the joke by announcing his campaign for president, an updating of Pat Paulsen’s comic shtick from the old 1960s Smothers Brothers television program. Meanwhile, Colbert’s new book, I Am America (And So Can You!), reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It contains heaps of wisdom on topics that range from parenting (make arbitrary rules and pick a favorite child) to ProtestantCatholic relations: “I’m sure the pope would put on a polo shirt and boat shoes, if that would make you feel more comfortable.”
He even made it onto the editorial page of the New York Times, guest-writing Maureen Dowd’s column: “Before I get started, I have to take care of one other bit of business: Bad things are happening in countries you shouldn’t have to think about. It’s all George W. Bush’s fault, the vice president is Satan, and God is gay. There. Now I’ve written Frank Rich’s column too.”
Colbert can say all of this, of course, because he’s a comedian and not a serious newscaster. He can cut through the bluster and fog of the national press to point out what the established media does not cover. Colbert works from his own mildly liberal perspective, but he is bipartisan in searching out hypocrisy or stupidity and skewering it mercilessly.
One of the regular features on his nightly show is his coining of new words. He takes young people to task, for instance, for what he calls their solitarity. Instead of taking the initiative that their parents might have in protests and political action, college students today seem to write letters of protest or blog posts. They don’t physically join in solidarity with their peers; the add their voice to an Internet list in the privacy of their own rooms, in safe solitarity with fighters for the cause.
Colbert is most famous, though, for the word truthiness. “Truthiness is what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are. What feels like the right answer, as opposed to what reality will support,” Colbert told Morley Safer on 60 Minutes. This phenomenon is not new to government or to American public life, but Colbert thinks we’re getting better at it. Colbert especially targets conservative punditry and President Bush with feeling the truth instead of thinking it through. At the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2006, Colbert roasted Bush with unexpected candor:
We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the Factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say, “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s because you looked it up in a book.
Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the “No Fact Zone.” Fox News, I hold a copyright on that term.
Still, the man who mocks conservatives by claiming that “reality has a well-known liberal bias” is not a stump speaker for the political left. On questions of life and religion, Colbert’s Catholicism shows its colors. One night, it was in the form of a few good Unitarian jokes and the recitation of the entire Nicene Creed.
On another night, bioethicist Lee Silver from Princeton visited the show. Colbert told him he believed that science and spirituality could go hand in hand and that all people, embryos included, have souls. Silver begged to differ. He told Colbert that, in the shower, we scrub off thousands of skin cells every day, and that the cells on his arm are human life in the same way that embryos are. To which Colbert responded: “If I let my arm go for a while and didn’t wash it, you’re saying I’d have babies on my arm.” Thank goodness we have comedians to take such arguments to their natural conclusions.
Or take the publicity surrounding Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul, when Fr. James Martin appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss the publication of the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. In the media, many opponents of religion had declared that the book showed Mother Teresa’s refusal to recognize that her doubts were, in effect, a denial of the existence of God. That night, Colbert was completely in character, the loud-mouthed bulldog at full volume. He asked Fr. Martin: “Did it shock you to find out that Mother Teresa is probably in hell? . . . She doubted the existence of God.” Fr. Martin replied that feeling God’s absence is not the same as doubting his existence. Colbert only pressed the point, accusing Martin of splitting hairs, and Martin insisted all the more on the distinction between feeling and believing.
It was funny at times, but more important, it was an exposition of Catholicism couched in Colbert’s comic outrage. Such comedy serves a valuable purpose in the public life. Not only does Colbert keep us entertained, but his mock bunkum cuts through the real bunkum we hear so much these daysjust as his mock truthiness reveals the real truthiness that infects nearly all of public life.
Nathaniel Peters is a junior fellow at First Things.