Back in 2009, I wrote that Stephen Colbert, "TV's know-nothing-in-chief," might need to "start planning his next gag." Well, that's why you should never take me to Vegas. Turns out, his Report ran for another five hilarious years. But he finally has left his Comedy Central gig, just last week, for David Letterman's job starting in June.
Colbert has been America's favorite right-wing nutjob, lampooning the kind of fact-free certainty that drives too many of our politicians and talking heads. As he put it on his very first show, and his very last, his Report was about the search for "truthiness" — that all-American cloak of b.s. that allows you to be a decider who goes with your gut instead of that pesky old head. Vast numbers of Americans came to trust his satiric take on the news more than the networks'.
Colbert, the blowhard character he played on TV, fancies himself an American icon, and that's exactly what he became.
Not to get too academic here, but Colbert is just another in a long line of comedians who speak truth to power. It's a concept you can find in Shakespeare's many fools, like King Lear's Fool, who is no fool at all and is actually smarter than the king. You'll also find such satire in the work of Voltaire and Molière; the right to speak truth to power was enshrined in our Constitution by Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, who helped make freedom of speech the very First Amendment. That has spawned the likes of Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Richard Pryor and now Stephen Colbert.
To put it in modern terms, if the emperor has no clothes, somebody really has to step up and crack some jokes about it.
Can art — even absurdist performance art tinged with big doses of sophomoric jokes — change the world? Of course it can. Advisers at the RAND Corporation who previewed The Interview, which has been pulled from theaters by Sony in the wake of terror threats, argued that the film might actually help topple the North Korean regime.
People tuned in because Stephen Colbert is a talented, funny and ultimately positive comedian. But for these past nine years, Colbert also managed to expose our modern stew of hypocrisy, hubris and, yes, truthiness. As a bonus, he's been a pain in Bill O'Reilly's much-deserving butt and a laughter-based antidote to the truly unfunny likes of Dick Cheney.
So what's his next gag? Here's hoping he keeps it subversive and lets his inner Stephen Colbert, circa 2005-14, poke a little fun at the powerful. ♦