Laslo Boyd: Goodbye Stephen

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By: Laslo Boyd 

This is a sad day for Stephen Colbert’s countless fans. Tonight’s edition of the Colbert Report will be the last one. Sometime next year, he will start his new gig on the Late Show, replacing David Letterman. While the new venue will undoubtedly provide Colbert with the opportunity to develop new comedic riffs, it just won’t be the same.

Along with the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, Colbert has brought the venerable art form of political satire into the 21st century. It takes nothing away from Will Rogers, Thomas Nast or even Garry Trudeau to observe that Colbert and Stewart are today’s “Gold Standard” of how to skewer politicians and oversized-ego celebrities (Is that redundant?).

Some media critics have coined the term “fake news” to characterize both shows. Having applied that label, some then go on to bemoan the fact that many young adults seem to view Colbert and Stewart as their main sources of news. Given the stunning level of misinformation and ignorance about current events among Americans, it’s not at all clear that viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report are disadvantaged.

In fact, you could make a much better case for applying the term “fake news” to almost everything presented on Fox News. For example, Fox has continued to characterize Benghazi as a scandal long after that claim has been totally discredited. Similarly, the network gave airtime to “birthers” who were clearly driven by political if not outright racial motivations. Colbert has also found Fox’s Bill O’Reilly to be a particularly inviting satirical target for his overblown assertions and inconsistencies.

Part of Colbert’s comic genius is his use of the ultra conservative persona he has created to comment on the news. His ability to use the language of conservatives to demonstrate the absurdity of many of their positions is a wonder to behold. Yet he is also able to poke fun at liberals without missing a beat. Fans are understandably worried that Colbert will leave that persona behind when he moves to the Late Show.

Another strength that he displays every night is his skill as an interviewer. Fortunately, he’ll be able to take that trait with him and it should serve him well on his new show. Whether he demonstrates the same latitude in his questions and comments on network television as he has on cable will be an early test of how he makes the transition.

For all their similarities, Colbert has never shown the anger or hard edge about politics and politicians that Stewart is displaying on a more regular basis. For many, not just younger viewers, there’s more than enough justification for those emotions, but it’s not the approach that Colbert uses.

As a result, it’s much easier to see him on a network program than to imagine Stewart making the change.

Why has Colbert been so incredibly popular and successful? There is no doubt that he has a great group of writers and researchers. Presumably many of them will be going with him to the Late Show. What makes Colbert stand out, however, is his delivery and timing. He always looks like he’s enjoying himself, sharing the moment with his audience.

Additionally, both he and Stewart benefit from the dysfunctional politics of our time and the abundance of public figures who are buffoons, hypocrites, or phonies. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are gifts to comedians even as they are the principal architects of gridlock and hyper-partisanship.

It’s hard to argue that Colbert and Stewart’s satire increases cynicism about politics. The nearly single-digit approval rate for Congress can’t be attributed to any comedian other than the ones in the legislature. They earned that ranking all by themselves.

In fact, you can more easily contend that Colbert and Stewart raise awareness through their satire. Stewart is particularly adept at showing the outrageous contradictions and inconsistencies of elected officials who now oppose something that they used to favor. Generally the only thing that has changed is who the president is.

Colbert’s jabs are certainly not subtle, but come disguised through his conservative persona seeming to agree with the target of his barbs. His comedy can sometimes be seen as a modern version of theater of the absurd.

Think about last week’s coverage of the Senate torture report.  While network news and national newspapers did give it extensive and thorough coverage, Colbert and Stewart both underscored the morally obtuse arguments of defenders of the brutal practices. Meanwhile, those defenders were given free rein on Fox.

Both Colbert and Stewart deny that they are presenting real news, but both clearly are having an impact on today’s politics. Neither of their audiences, nor for that matter those of anyone on Fox News or any cable station, come close to reaching the numbers tuned in to network news.  But it’s clear that their audience is much larger than is measured by the Nielsen ratings. Available on Facebook, the Comedy Central app, and other forms of social media, Colbert and Stewart are definitely phenomena of the 21st century media age.

A few months ago, we went with my daughter and a few of her friends, all fanatic Colbert fans, to a taping of his show. We were told that when he came out beforehand, he would speak as the real Stephen Colbert, not the character on the show. It was really hard to tell the difference. And that glimpse of him gives me great hope for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.