Stephen Colbert’s multiple avatars show a man who packs inconceivable talent into his slight frame. The layers keep peeling back as circumstances dictate. His versatility uncovers the absurdities that underpin politics, society and the national mind-set.
He burst upon the American consciousness seventeen years ago on The Daily Show. The advent of John Stewart green-lighted Colbert’s meteoric success. As “senior correspondent” he had the opportunity to don the mantle of a rabid conservative. His character spewed glib pundit-speak in stentorian, chest-beating tones.
Shows like Strangers with Candy, Let it Snow, and The Dana Carvey Show followed. Appearances on Bewitched gave him room to grow, explore and have fun. His is the voice of Ace on the SNL cartoon Ace and Gary: The Ambiguously Gay Duo. His true métier however is the hilarious but pointed expose of the political theater of the absurd, to which he keeps returning.
In 2005 Comedy Central gave him the opportunity to anchor his own show The Colbert Report. He now had center stage. Stephen Colbert defined and refined an ultra-conservative avatar said to be modeled on the “dazzling hubris” of Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. The set was designed on egomaniacal lines, liberally emblazoned with Colbert’s name.
He informed his audience that he was taking over as spokesperson, and they would henceforth speak through his voice. Every weeknight this American flag waving, eagle-loving, posturing pundit screeches down from above and starts pontificating on his opinions. With a “tip of the hat” or a “wag of the finger” he delivers “truthiness.” His deadpan delivery of “The Word,” is accompanied by superciliously raised eyebrow, trademark smirks, frowns or straightforward hollering to his “Nation.”
Parodying The O’Reilly Factor, his personal mission is to “speak straight from the gut.” His animadversions are not backed by rationality. He calls it the No Fact Zone. If it has been reported, it is “factesque.” He uses politics to skewer hypocrisy, not just to deliver punch lines.
Colbert takes his insightful analysis of American politics into the field. He demonstrated the inherent dangers of the Supreme Court ruling that relaxed campaign finance restrictions. He formed his own Super PAC with the motto: “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow”. He raised vast sums of money from untraceable corporate sources, unions and vested interests, groups and individuals to be used at whim for his own purposes.
The $1 million plus he raised was put towards projects like labeling Mitt Romney a “serial killer,” ridiculing NBA fat cats, or adjuring Iowa voters to write “Rick Parry” instead of Perry into the ballots. This larger-than-life stunt brought him praise and plaudits, a Peabody Award, and a summons to testify before Congress.
Over nine seasons Stephen Colbert has brought to life his views, loves, peeves, personal story and fears. His on and off-air characters are inextricably braided together. It is hard to know where the real person begins and the faux anchor ends. He once famously said the real Colbert only agrees with the on-air Colbert “13.4% of the time.”
Stephen Colbert adds authorship to his many avatars. He has penned several best sellers: America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, I Am America (And So Can You!), America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t, and the children’s book, I Am a Pole.
The fictional Stephen Colbert, has anointed himself with titles and honors which number among them, Sir Doctor Stephen Tyrone, the Rev, D.F.A., Mos Def Colbert, Her Excellency, Heavyweight Champion of the World* featuring Flo Rida La Premiere Dame De France.
Stephen Colbert is the “Commander in Opposing the Chief.” He was mock-knighted by Queen Noor of Jordan. He declared himself the first lady of France. In actual fact he received an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from Knox College.
As the run down to his last broadcast on December 18 begins, expectations are running high. Speculation is rife as to the fate and final exit of The Colbert Report icon. The drama started with his hosting President Barack Obama as guest on December 8. It was a special edition filmed at George Washington University in D.C. The set displayed past presidents with his photoshopped face. The episode was titled Mr. Colbert Goes to Washington, D.C. Ya Later Legislator: Partisan is Such Sweet Sorrow.
It is hard to best Stephen Colbert on his own show, as many a politician has found. The president however, comfortable as always on TV, with unimpaired calm and good humor, gave as good as he got, rolling with the punches and landing some of his own. He even ousted the host from his own chair for a few minutes, taking on his persona, his ticks, his expressions and gestures. He turned “The Word” into the more presidential “Decree,” getting the appreciative young audience solidly in his corner.
As Letterman’s replacement on CBS’s The Late Show, Stephen Colbert will bid adieu and move on to a bigger stage. CBS President and CEO, Les Moonves, sees Colbert as one of the most innovative and influential forces on television and qualified to inherit Letterman’s legacy.
CBS has not confirmed the date of his first show in 2015, where Stephen Colbert will air his next avatar. Not even he knows who this new Colbert will be — except he will not be The Report character whose passing is already being mourned; who fearlessly and stridently flays die-hard conservative biases, all the more unanswerable as he seems to be siding with them and propagating them.
By Bina Joseph
Photo by Reid Rosenberg – Flickr License
Photo by U.S. Army – Flickr License