Like everyone else, I too mourn the impending demise of America’s favorite faux-anchor, Stephen Colbert. (Here I refer to the character; the man will, presumably, live on.) Unlike so many others on late-night TV, Colbert is left oddly without a protégé. Even The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart — the closest thing Colbert has to a peer these days — returned from a hiatus last summer only to find his replacement, John Oliver, being popularly crowned as his successor. (Oliver now has a new show on HBO, but he’s still my odds-on favorite to return when Stewart eventually bows out.)
Colbert, meanwhile, occupies a rarified air all his own, a Bill O’Reilly facsimile for all of us who despise the real one. Which leads me to wonder, half-seriously, if that’s what all of the handwringing over his departure is about in the first place.
As I’ve written before, the idea of Stewart and Colbert as Heroic Liberals has always been more myth than reality. There is little evidence to suggest that either of them truly desires a progressive transformation of Stateside democracy: a little tax reform here, a little less voter discrimination there, sure. But one rarely gets the sense that the duo’s comedy informs their activism, rather than the other way around.
Indeed, Stewart’s passion has not aged well. He won early accolades for his righteously indignant takedown of CNN’s Crossfire, a program with a premise so stupid that the hapless network couldn’t resist reviving it late last summer. Then in 2010, The New York Times made the dramatic comparison to Edward Murrow after Stewart successfully advocated (with evident feeling) for healthcare funding on behalf of 9/11 first responders.
But where Stewart’s satire cut viciously in the Bush years, his Obama-era humor has begun to feel almost formulaic. In January 2010, Stewart’s timid interview with torture memo author John Yoo was so universally panned that he apologized for his performance the next night. His later conversation with Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t terribly better (“I feel like we’re on the porch drinking lemonade,” Stewart remarked).
Colbert, on the other hand, didn’t initially enjoy the same reputation for edgy confrontation (although his 2006 speech at the absurd spectacle that is the White House Correspondents Dinner remains a masterpiece of the genre). But where Stewart has occasionally been known to throw a knockout punch or two in person (Jim Cramer springs to mind), Colbert’s victims are largely crucified in absentia. In between, he had his head shaved by a U.S. Army general on a base in Iraq.
Two years ago, Steve Almond took a long look at these two comedians and threw up his hands:
Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.
Our lazy embrace of Stewart and Colbert is a testament to our own impoverished comic standards. We have come to accept coy mockery as genuine subversion and snarky mimesis as originality. It would be more accurate to describe our golden age of political comedy as the peak output of a lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage.
His frustrations are certainly valid. But more to the point, it seems to me that Almond’s expectations scooted far away from reality. It’s one thing to excoriate the audiences of Stewart and Colbert for their complacency, and quite another to assume that they share Almond’s progressive ideals. For that matter, it seems even less justifiable to assume the two guys peering into our living rooms from behind their news desks four nights a week are all that different from most of the people staring right back at them — that is to say, mainstream urban America.
If Colbert’s upcoming exodus to late-night network TV feels like a betrayal, it’s a curiously one-sided one. It brings to mind my gradual realization, during my mid-teens, that the inveterate hatred I felt for the New York Yankees was not shared by my idols wearing Red Sox uniforms, who routinely exchanged jokes with Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter as they made their away around the infield diamond and, all too often, later donned the pinstripes themselves. Turns out the Sox and Yankees were not nearly the polar opposites I’d always supposed, and that they had more in common with each other as pro ballplayers than either of them had with me. It seems to be taking all of us a little longer to reach the same realization about our comedians.