Stephen Colbert, the man Professor of English Kirk Combe calls the “greatest satirist of all time,” interviews Barack Obama—with Colbert’s specialized portrayal of Lincoln in the background.
What’s great about satire? It punches you in the head after kicking you in the gut; it ignites your critical brain; and it gives powerful people a wedgie.
I’ve studied many great satirists—Juvenal, Jonathan Swift, Margaret Atwood—each one with his or her own gut-punch/ head-kick combo, but one name tops my list: Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. He left the show two years ago now, and though satire will always be a part of his comedy, I’m really missing the Report, as I’ve never seen satire played so well. Here’s why.
He gave us the word. As he explained in The Colbert Report, “truthiness” is the logic used by people to make a claim “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence or facts. That alone might be enough to make Colbert the greatest at this art form.
2) To reveal bullshit, he bullshits. (And lest, dear reader, you be offended, I use this term strictly in the academic sense.)
To expose the jiggery-pokery of political punditry, Colbert invades the persona. Just look at his impression of Bill O’Reilly. And when The O’Reilly Factor star claimed that his political bluster is all an act, Colbert asks: “If you’re an act, what am I?” Snap. By being the best bullshitter on the block, Colbert establishes a no bullshit zone.
3) Fun house mirrors. Deft personas.
You have to think to get it. One of the best examples of this trifecta is the segment “Who’s Attacking Me Now?,” which deals with the viral hashtag #CancelColbert resulting from his lampoon of the Washington Redskins owner for racism. The gist is this: Colbert distances himself from the antics of his “beloved” character—the character himself is clearly a comment on racism; calls for a boycott of Jonathan Swift for proposing to eat Irish babies in “A Modest Proposal”; and likens himself to Christ for surviving a cancellation threat. In short, this bit will blow your satiric socks off.
4) Anywhere. Anytime. Anyone.
Colbert consistently risks full-contact satire in order to speak truthiness directly to power. And he lives to tell the tale—like the time at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner when he observed, “I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.”
5) Learn something actually significant. Instruction paired with delight!
Research by media scholars has proven that Colbert’s show was more educational than the news—like the time he launched his own super PAC to demonstrate campaign finance system loopholes. Colbert, of course, apologized for any “inadvertent educational value.” Ever the greatest gut-puncher/head-kicker, he adds: “I never intended to be an ‘educator.’ What’s next? Getting paid like one?” As an educator, I can only react, first, Oof!, then, Hmm …