“We cannot elect men to office,” said Jane Fonda, cozily ensconced on a charmingly disconcerted Stephen Colbert’s lap, “that are afraid of premature evacuation.”
On May 10th, Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report got an early birthday present when the object of his fantasy, Fonda, decided to turn her interview with him into a make-out session.
“You are so cute, man!” she said to him, her face bare centimeters away from his pink one. “And I’m not kidding – you have the best lips. Why do you think I didn’t just kiss you just once the first time I came to your show? I came back for more.”
“Yes, we had a bit of a freaky three-way with Gloria Steinem, which is something, I think, very few people have been able to say,” he responded to shouts of laughter from the constantly giggling audience (if you’re like me and can’t stand the Comedy Central video player, The Raw Story has full video).
Fonda was only acting out the fantasies of any number of members of the so-called Colbert Nation (women and men). It’s all a far cry from October, 2005, when plenty of people, me included, wondered how far the new show would go. Colbert was leaving behind the hottest thing in fake-news and the idea of a half-hour parody didn’t seem all that thrilling, even if it was our favorite correspondent who was about to do it. It was one thing to watch Colbert needle self-important pundits like Bill O’Reilly in short segments on the The Daily Show, it was quite another to hand over an entire half hour to a pompous megalomaniac.
That stuff gets pretty old pretty fast even when it’s for real – how much comedy could Colbert wring from it? Well, let’s see: after one year and seven months on air, The Report and its bespectacled anchor has attracted attention on a scale guaranteed to make more “legitimate” news shows gnash their teeth in envy.
His guests include politicians and pundits from opposite sides of the liberal/conservative divide, movie stars, diplomats, artists and writers, academicians, musicians – it’s an eclectic mix. He’s also the only TV host I ever saw who actively uses the internet, especially Youtube, to connect with his fans. Craig Ferguson on CBS may have his emails and “The Google”, but Colbert has his green screen challenges: even George Lucas couldn’t resist the pull of the Star Wars challenge.
He also contributed the words “truthiness” and “wikiality” to the modern lexicon; inspired a Ben & Jerry ice cream flavor called Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dreams; has two namesakes in separate protected species – a baby bald eagle named Stephen Jr. and a leatherback turtle called Stephanie Colburtle.
Even alternate reality and other countries aren’t proof against him – Captain America bequeathed his shield to Colbert upon his death as the only worthy successor to his mantle and the city of Oshawa, Ontario, now celebrates Stephen Colbert Day. He nearly added a bridge in Hungary to his achievements but gave it up after the Hungarian Ambassador told him he’d have to die first. It’s an astonishing list of achievements for a fictional character.
In fact, in all this time, he has only suffered two significant “losses”: once to Barry Manilow (“Kneel before your God, Babylon!” thundered a crushed, in-character Colbert to the Hollywood that had deprived him of his rightful prize) at the Emmy’s for Outstanding Individual Performance In A Variety Or Music Program; and then to South Korean pop sensation Rain in the online poll conducted by Time for the top spot in their annual list of the 100 most influential people.
Manilow made up for his involuntary error by signing a peace treaty when he appeared on the show later on. The terms were simple – joint custody. As for Rain – Colbert chose to sing a song in Korean to show the world that he can be Korean and cool too.
Much of the frenzy surrounding Colbert is the effect of 2006, when he shook off the “TDS spin-off” tag and jumped into the national consciousness in spectacular fashion by staying in-character for the Annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Overnight, he turned into a cultural hero – for the left if not for the right.
No amount of breathless anticipation and endless dissection in the mainstream press – be it The New York Times or The New Yorker – could do what that one night’s recycled material was able to do. In hindsight, everybody who dismissed his performance that evening as “unfunny” or “mean” agreed that he was a sign of things to come. The backlash had begun, the tide had turned, the buck was slowing to a stop – think of a cliché and it was probably written in foot high letters somewhere.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly, Colbert is more things to all people than I can think of. Personally, having watched him inhabit the character of Stephen Colbert, Idiot with a TV Show, for all these years, I suspect that The Report is less a symbol of our times, and more a result.
His effectiveness lies in an utter lack of preachiness at a time when everybody wants to tell us things. Advertisements, movie stars, priests, talking heads on TV – they just won’t shut up. Colbert subverts that process by taking it to an extreme level. His pundit is a character into whom he has put a lot of work, and it’s fairly clear from his rare interviews that he has learned the trick of concentrating on the job at hand rather than worrying about its eventual result. It’s a hard thing for anyone to do, and much harder for someone on TV, whose very job depends on his popularity, to pull off.
So far, Stephen Colbert’s bearing up about a hundred times better than I could’ve hoped for. Happy belated birthday, Stephen! It’s been a good year. Here’s to many more.
[Originally published at Blogcritics]