Sarah Wheeler is a Junior Professional Writing major and Political Science minor at Waynesburg University. Sarah credits her interest in writing to her high school English teacher, Ms. Diane Haddad, who challenged her to find an issue she was passionate about and develop a persuasive essay using rhetorical analysis. Sarah’s writing began with the rhetorical and it continues to influence her writing today. In “Rev. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert: The Embodiment of Truthiness,” Sarah analyzes Mr. Colbert’s rhetoric by examining his critique of and influence on American political discourse.
Rev. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert: The Embodiment of Truthiness
Reverend Doctor Stephen T. Colbert is the renowned character of comedian, actor, and political satirist Stephen Tyrone Colbert. Stephen Colbert is executive producer and host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. The Colbert Report has received much acclaim since the show’s pilot episode on October 17, 2005 receiving awards such as the esteemed Peabody award and numerous Primetime Emmy nominations, even winning their fist Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Program in 2009 (“About the Show” Colbert). The Colbert Report is a spin-off of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and appears to be a conservative news program similar to The O’Reilly Factor and The Glenn Beck Program of Fox News. Colbert hosts the show as a vehemently ring-wing political pundit with a purest, idealistic outlook adhering strictly to his party’s base. Some of Colbert’s most popular segments include “The WØRD,” “The ThreatDown,” and “Better Know a District.” Each segment speaks satirically to the shows political bias while being seriously and enthusiastically discussed by Colbert. Colbert is considered a political satirist, which is especially evident during the previously mentioned segments by constantly lampooning the very fear mongering he is perpetuating. An example of such lampooning can be found when researching the ThreatDown’s threat list for the May 12, 2008 show, which included, 5. Airlines; 4.Women’s Softball; 3. Dirty Keyboards; 2. Isabella Rossellini; and 1. Adorable Bears (“ThreatDown – Cute Bears”). Ultimately, highlighting absurdity, especially political absurdity, is the main goal of The Colbert Report. As noted in Lloyd F. Bitzer’s model for rhetorical critic, it is beneficial to know the speaker, and thus his approach, in order to adequately judge the other elements of the rhetorical situation (Bitzer 1-2). By becoming acclimated with the speaker and his background, the critic can better understand how the rhetor arrived at their discourse, such as being able to indicate how certain constraints, another element of the rhetorical situation, influenced or altered the discourse. Therefore, before evaluating how Colbert critics the political situation, we must first examine how Reverend Doctor Stephen T. Colbert came to be the force he is today.
Colbert grew up in South Carolina as one of 10 children in an Irish Catholic family. After graduating from Northwestern University with a Bachelor of the Arts in Theater, Colbert joined Chicago’s famous Second City troupe where his career endeavors began. After moving to New York City, Colbert participated in several entertainment projects such as, HBO’s series Exit 57 and Comedy Central’s series Strangers With Candy (“About the Show” Colbert). Much of Colbert’s early life is used as a model for his character’s life, which may attribute to some of the confusion between the character Colbert plays and the “real” Colbert. The development of Colbert’s character began in 1997 while anchoring diverse segments on Comedy Central’s, then titled, The Daily Show. These segments often grew quite popular because of his performances. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is, “an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning program that takes a reality-based look at news, trends, pop culture, current events, politics, sports and entertainment with an alternative point of view” (“About the Show” Daily). Only after Jon Stewart’s hosting debut in 1999 did The Daily Show with Jon Stewart become politically charged. Colbert notes the change was not a dramatic shift but more of a gradual nudge into that direction (Colbert 7). As a self-professed Democrat, Colbert suggests his interest in politics is using them as more than “punch line” but not as the focal point of a serious segment (Kurtz 1). This analysis seems quite true to The Colbert Report’s satiric basis, which enables the epic comedy Colbert masters. Therefore, we can see that the personal beliefs of Stephen Colbert, thus Reverend Doctor Stephen T. Colbert are influential in how the show’s rhetoric and approach is shaped just as Bitzer noted in his piece The Rhetorical Situation. Since Colbert aims for political commentary beyond just humor, we can see that injecting some seriousness into the political discussion by stodgy pontification will not be the approach taken by The Colbert Report.
Stephen Colbert’s outlook on political commentary is similar to that of Jon Stewart; however, their approaches are quite different. Nevertheless, the driving force behind all this political satire is both men’s involvement in The Daily Show. Jon Stewart grabbed onto a corner of the political debate soon after his hosting duties began in 1999. After examining the political-sphere during that time, it seems evident that the highly controversial and debated 2000 Presidential Election would have had the attention of many Americans. Therefore, as our country’s attention shifted to the campaigning and political promises of Presidential candidates, The Daily Show found itself focusing more and more on politics. Interestingly enough, Colbert also noted that he shares the belief of going beyond “politics as punch line” with Stewart (Kurtz 1). Therefore, the political focus took form as political satire, which only intensified throughout the first decade of 2000; thus, dominating The Daily Show’s discourse. The intensification of the political satire was due in large part to the altering of media’s objectivity and journalists’ intentions. In fact, in a 2005 interview with John Avlon, former speech writer for New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and current columnist for The Daily Beast, Stewart and Avlon discuss the need for centrist commentary on American politics due the partisan, and, frankly, bias discussions that were being passed off as objective journalism (“Daily Show: John P. Avlon”). Ironically enough, this interview and resulting discussion encapsulates the exigency of an objective political commentary, which Avlon praises Stewart for working towards with The Daily Show. This same exigency can be used to understand how The Colbert Report came into existence in late 2005. Since this 2005 interview, American politics have become more polarized than ever and “mainstream media” has become hyper-partisan lacking in objectivity, championing dangerous rhetoric, and focusing attention on the most extreme fringe of the political parties. And, this change in American politics and reporting is the focus of John Avlon’s book, Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. So it may seem that Stewart and Avlon’s interview may have influenced both men to take action to give centrists a voice in what they consider extremist based media.
The extremist based and often rant inclined media of the latter part of the last decade can be considered the motivation behind Stewart’s shift and The Colbert Report’s existence. One may wonder how such a political climate would give birth to such shows; however, with further investigation of the political polarization, media bias, and perpetuation of dangerous discourse, the exigency of The Daily Show as we know it today and The Colbert Report seems logical, if not necessary. The political polarization that lead to such extreme discourse, may have began the day the United States Supreme Court awarded Florida’s electoral votes and thus the Presidency to then Governor George W. Bush. Some citizens felt strongly about the illegitimacy of Bush as our President, which created further tensions between Republicans and Democrats. Since that time, the “Us versus Them” psychological split between the two major United States parties seems to have only flourished into the idealistic, purist political dynamic of modern times indicative of polarization in general. Many believe that this polarization is largely amplified by the loud voices on the fringes or extremes and the use of media and the Internet as an outlet for such discourse (Avlon 10). So, what use to be extremist commentary not indicative of a strong, valid political discourse, can now find like-minded individuals across the Internet, thus strengthening group numbers, eliciting media attention, and, ultimately, validating rants of what may only be a handful of extremists. Media attention of such commentary makes the ideas seem indicative of a large number of people, which might not always be the case. Not only does this question the validity of journalists’ reporting in general, it also showcases the current role of American media as, “reporting opposing opinions…[while] the facts supporting those opinions are not longer the object of investigative or interpretative analysis…” (Colletta 866).
Some argue that leaving viewers to interpret the news creates legitimacy; however, such forms may perpetuate viewer’s own ideas and validate them without any basis in fact. Instead of exposing viewers to new information and rationales, media is only creating what John Avlon calls an “echo-chamber.” This type of reporting probably enabled the existence of opinion based, “fringe” or “Wingnut” talk shows such as, MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann and Fox New’s The Glenn Beck Program. Without having to show how news is generated or requiring “fact checking” allows media correspondents to spout off personal opinions while parading them around as objective news. Though, sadly enough, this is precisely what was suggested by then-general manager, Dan Abrams encourages hosts to offer their opinions on air” (Avlon 128). This is dangerous territory the United States has entered, because citizens can now tune into a preferred station to hear their opinions verified, no matter how ludicrous. This reality only emboldens one’s personal opinions while, never championing the idea of object investigation and exploration of opposing opinions. The entire idea of reporting without the representation of fact-based analysis and critique speaks directly to Stephen Colbert’s term, “truthiness,” which refers to “the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true” (“Truthiness”). While Colbert may champion truthiness, he does so only satirically because of the implications of blind, ideological discourse that further divides Americans, such as parts of Sarah Palin’s “Real America” speech:
We believe that the best of American is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation (Avlon 82).
Speeches such as Palin’s create a firm divide between what she calls “Real Americans,” whatever that may mean, and, what is then implied by her statements, “fake” or “anti-Americans.” Now not only must American citizens try to bridge the divide between real opposing groups, but also between rhetorically created or fabricated groups, as if managing one division was not difficult enough. As Avlon notes, “Americans are not deeply divided – our political parties, pundits and activists are – and the explosive growth of independent voters is a direct reaction to this disconnect” (242). “We the people” are not as bias, extreme, or blood-hungry as so much of the political discussion seems to indicate. A larger question remains though, how, then, if most Americans are expressing the need for centrist politics, typically indicative of independent voters, does the media paint politics with the large divisions filled with extreme discourse? Avlon brilliantly summarizes the process that cultivates such bias speech:
There is a recipe that keeps being repeated – a Wingnut claim that riffs on foundational fears is posted on a fringe Web sites then gets passed around. These dispatches from the outer limits get repeated on talk radio. They trickle down to the grassroots and appear on signs at protests. Eventually some elected official parrots the paranoia, playing to the base while venting their spleen. It makes news not only because the statements are outrageous but because they crystallize the crazy in our politics (74).
In consideration of this synopsis, one may come to find that many of the notable news sources in America today may not be as credible or acclaimed as they allege; for, if they partake in the aforementioned crystallization of our political “crazy” for sake of ratings or following “popular news,” where can citizens turn for some form on honest news, or at least honest political and media critique? Well some Americans have found their reliable news source in both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Since both shows have followed the politicization of much of American news, their satirical commentaries critique “mainstream media’s” political discussion. So, it seems that in a time when the title of “most trusted name in news” can longer be awarded to any of the dominate news corporations; but, rather other sources, which was indicated by a 2009 Time magazine poll finding that The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart was the most trusted man in news (Avlon 142). Therefore, the demand for something other than hate-filled, “fringe” reporting has created legitimacy for both Stewart and Colbert’s “fake” news shows. Colbert’s show may have specifically grown out of The Daily Show and been made possible by advertising the right-wing punditry of Rev. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert while a part of The Daily Show’s cast, the need for someone calling “bullshit” when visible is much of how The Colbert Report has come into existence (Avlon 142-143). The Colbert Report’s exigency or force behind its existence, as Lloyd F. Bitzer might suggest, is based upon the existence of media bias and political polarization. Rev. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert exists precisely because the average Americans’ reality has become defined by the “crazy” of the few. In a time when many Americans may feel that partaking in the political discussion is no longer capable or worth the hassle of shouting over the “wingnuts,” Rev. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert might be just what the doctor ordered.
The Colbert Report and The Daily Show critique the political discussion by sharing the definitive theme beyond political humor. However, both pundits’ approach could not be more different. Stewart is working towards inserting some satirical, yet serious, commentary and critique of not only politics but also the media’s discussion of politics, which is indicative of his “most trusted name in news” award. However, Colbert’s approach is more comedic and satirical by some flagrant mocking and lampooning and rather absurd antics. Stephen Colbert is not nearly as pompous or ill informed as his character may portray him to be. No, throughout his show Colbert is invoking the use of a rhetorical practice called performance theory or performance studies. This rhetorical practice is based on the idea of one literally acting out the way others live their lives. Colbert has notably modeled his character after the likes of Bill O’Reilly, or “Poppa Bear,” as Colbert refers to him. Colbert specifically discusses the external influences of his character during a 2005 interview with The Washington Post; Rev. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert will be influenced by
…“dazzling hubris” of Bill O'Reilly, along with Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough, plus “the folksiness of Aaron Brown, the way he mulls the news and loves to chew the words. And the sexiness of Anderson Cooper. Certainly they sell him as attractive.” Watching O'Reilly and company inundate viewers with opinions, he says, is like witnessing a spectacle “as natural as a gorilla beating his chest” (Kurtz 1).
Stephen Colbert is pulling from all areas of the media, encompassing behaviors championed by specific pundits and organizations to be the most effect model of critique for their very absurdity. Each element mentioned comes from specific individuals that tend to be the voice of a specific group of people or audience. Therefore, Colbert realizes that in order to speak objectively to people of all divides, he must employ part of their “hero” in his character. This is important in relation to Bitzer’s model of rhetorical critique because he is taking into consideration his audience and constraints, which are vital to a successful rhetorical situation. By doing so, Colbert aims at representing all Americans and truly being The American Hero that everyone loves. Rev. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert is reminiscent of “every” American, thus appealing to broader audience. In having such a diverse composition of pundit influence, Colbert may also critique an array of political commentators, not limiting himself to a specific person or “type.” This hodge-podge of political punditry is also what endears Colbert’s character to his viewers and enables him to be the ultimate “American.” Saying that Colbert is the ultimate American is only indicative of the other defining rhetorical device used by Colbert, epideictic speech, which is the major influence to his performance theory. Epideictic speech, as defined by The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction, by James A. Herrick, deals with issues of praise (epainos) (80). Epideictic speech comments positively on people or situations and often embodies the beliefs of the whole community. In character, as The American hero and “every” American, Colbert is not mocking America and all its beloved symbols; he is sporting them proudly to showcase what every American believes to be true. Colbert paints his character red, white, and blue to remind his viewers that Americans have commonalities, which rest on the symbols we hold reverently today. Few would be successful in finding Colbert unpatriotic in the most commonly accepted way. One of the many examples of Colbert’s patriotic outlook was seen during is USO tour entitled “Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando” in June 2009 when The Colbert Report spent a week producing in the combat zone (“Abou the Show” Colbert). Colbert’s praise of all things American is honest and holds no basis is mockery. His ultimate aim is to remind his viewers of what defines America beyond the current political drama. Colbert’s rhetoric stresses the principles of the nation’s founding not to undermine them, but rather to bolster them and use them as a tool for critiquing the absurdity of their politicization today.
The mockery and satirical commentary then exists in The Colbert Report is strictly based on perpetuating the absurdities in the political debate to the most extreme example. In doing this, Colbert hopes to show exactly how crazy or illogical the discussion has become. Colbert notes that he does not mind playing an idiot, and even defines his character as, “A well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot" who "doesn't mean to be a jerk” (Kurtz 1). Then, by accepting that as the framework for his character, we can clearly see how Colbert speaks to the definition of satire as, noted by Lisa Colletta, Associate Professor of English at American University in Rome, a defined form that holds up human vices and follies to ridicule and scorn. It is ‘an attack on or criticism of any stupidity or vice in form of scathing humor’” (858). Stephen Colbert is acting pointedly to the satiric form while simply focusing in on political pundits and commentary. Therefore, one can surmise that Colbert’s antics are pushed to the extremes only to mimic the very extremes he portrays. Colbert personally explains his characters method of first choosing someone knowledgeable enough about a subject to fight for their beliefs, and then when they begin to do so, he will just back off saying, “yes, that is what I thought” (Kurtz 2). Colbert uses a mixture of unintelligence, existing political discourse, and false logic to showcase the misgivings of political punditry. During his pilot episode, Colbert makes clear defining principles of his show,
“…This program is dedicated to you. The heroes. And, who are the heroes? The people who watch this show; average, hardworking Americans you’re not the elitists. You’re not the country club Americans. I know for a fact that my country club would never let you in. But you get it. …[and] your voice will be heard in the form of my voice. (“The First Show”).
This introduction to The Colbert Report employs all the political catchphrases that peak the interest of the average listener and champions the viewer as the focal point of the show. The discourse’s “viewer as focus” is a perfect example of rhetorical critique of the aforementioned tactic of the media’s fringe note that their viewers will decide what is going on in the news, while trying to create a “we are equals” relationship. Colbert’s critique takes the logic a step farther though, and exposes the fallacy in thought. So, while the pundit might be saying this is all for you (the viewer), I am only a mere pathway for information, a mere vehicle, if you will, and it is only you that can decide how to interpret the information provided. All of which is aimed at giving the viewer power. However, Colbert’s discussion is quite similar, but goes one step further asserting, in character, what the other pundits fail to say, “I may say the show is all about you, but every sign emblem and person here knows otherwise.” Underlining the political “echo-chambers” that enable commentators to hear themselves rant and rave about their opinions as if they are credible and particularly news worthy. By taking his discourse a step beyond the fringe discussion, Stephen Colbert is revealing the fallacies in political commentary while acting as one of the few quasi “watchdog” groups within the media. Rev. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, taking fringe pundits off their soapboxes, one sarcastic smirk at a time.
Stephen Colbert may have never intended to become a media watchdog of sorts, or an esteemed political commentator in his own right. However, The Colbert Report has come to receive much national attention as of late with its sponsorship of The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear along with The Daily Show, which took place at the Washington D.C. Mall on October 30, 2010. The rally was a centrist’s call to action, for people in the middle of the political spectrum, to take to the streets, shout “be responsible” and “for the sake of our nation, take it down a notch!” Colbert’s approach to the rally played on fears, and encouraged everyone to dress as their biggest fear for the rally. I attended the rally and witnessed, within the first 10 minutes of his introduction, Rev. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert brought to life by parading around stage in a stars and stripes track suit, waving the American flag, and emerging from a “fear bunker” that was kept deep under the stage. The audience then was warned to be afraid because of the killer bees Colbert released; all the while Stewart calmed fears and pointing out Colbert’s antics. The rally was Stephen Colbert’s second trip to Washington, D.C. within about a month’s time; the first time was to testify before Congress regarding the plight of the immigrant farm worker. On September 24, 2010, Colbert testified before Congress in character about a day in the life of an immigrant farmer, which he experienced voluntarily soon before. Colbert gave a long speech full of his signature quips and jargon; constantly expounding absurdity on absurdity to illicit understanding in a whole new way. Colbert never mocked the immigrant workers or the unemployed American workers, but instead carefully balanced between pointing out the obvious and lampooning the illogical. Colbert’s profound influence on the political discussion cannot be ignored or passed off as simply “fake” news. Colbert has almost unintentionally thrown his proverbial hat into the political ring becoming one of the most influential commentators and people of modern times. Stephen Colbert gives a touch of humor, satire, critique, and profundity to the political discussion, which may be in order to help manage a problem identified by William Butler Yeats, a fellow Irishman, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” (Brown xii). Colbert is certainly a man of passionate intensity, and his actions seem to qualify him as one of the “best.”
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