Stephen Colbert: Great performance artist… or the greatest performance artist?
I ask that as someone who saw Spinal Tap play Carnegie Hall. (Seriously.) After popularizing the “mockumentary” format in 1984 with This Is Spinal Tap (and I don’t think anyone since has done it better, even in light of how fashionable the aesthetic has become among contemporary network sitcoms like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation), a strange thing happened: fictitious bandmates Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) emerged from the movie’s contained narrative to play live concerts and sit down for talk-show interviews; they became altogether separate entertainers (and entities) from the actors who portrayed them (the wigs and British accents contributed to the seamless illusion), seldom speaking out of character (even on the DVD commentary track!), and the history of the group so painstakingly “documented” in This Is Spinal Tap came to serve as the band’s accepted background as they went on to forge, over the next several decades, a genuine history here in the real world, which includes the release of actual albums (1992’s Break Like the Wind and 2009’s Back from the Dead, the latter of which lost the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album to—wait for it—A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!) to supplement their apocryphal discography.
Spinal Tap represents the first time, to my knowledge, that a piece of performance art has been conducted indefinitely, on such a grand scale (as opposed to the more intimate, idiosyncratic stylings of Andy Kaufman). We the audience became active and willing participants in their act, as the illusion could only be maintained if we all tacitly agreed to support it. In one of the rare instances (prior to their Unwigged & Unplugged show from 2009) in which the actors publicly acknowledged the fictional nature of their satiric creation, McKean, appearing on The Dennis Miller Show on July 14, 1992, said (and I’m paraphrasing here, since I am relying on memory of an interview I watched once, over twenty years ago, and have no way of verifying here in 2014, proving that even YouTube has its limitations), “When we’re on stage, the message we take from the audience is, ‘Hey, we’re here pretending to be Spinal Tap fans because we know you’re only pretending to be Spinal Tap.’” That’s the difference, ultimately, between the performance art of, say, Sacha Baron Cohen—the genius prankster whose act depends on unwitting participants—and that of Tap and Colbert, whose shtick required both our approval and cooperation.
WELCOME TO THE REPORT
What began as a broad spoof of political commentator Bill O’Reilly on The Daily Show in 1997 blossomed into the boldest, most innovative comedy-cum-talk show on television, starting in 2005, with The Colbert Report. “Colbert” (I will use quotation marks to distinguish the character from the performer) assumed we, his audience, were as staunchly conservative in our politics as he was, even as Colbert, just like us, knew all along the opposite was far closer to the truth. That’s what made the comedy so effective, so supremely satisfying: It wasn’t passive. Every sentence Colbert uttered through the ironic prism of “Colbert” needed to be carefully considered and decoded by his audience for meaning—for truth. And that dynamic went both ways: Every extemporaneous utterance on the part of “Colbert”’s interview subjects had to be processed through the perspective of that character, so Colbert could respond accordingly; it’s what’s made him, far and away, the best interviewer in late-night: He is actually listening—and when was the last time someone on cable news stopped shouting rehearsed talking points long enough to do that? The Colbert Report satirized the kneejerk stupidity of political punditry by valuing in its audience the twin pillars of intelligence altogether absent from the type of programs it was mocking: open-minded curiosity and a sense of humor.
Most of those cable-news shows, of course, are centered on a personality, often obnoxiously larger-than-life, and so too was the Report. As I’ve illustrated in previous posts, a fictional character, per the teachings of David Freeman, is comprised of a finite grouping of attributes that governs his worldview, actions, and dialogue; “Colbert,” despite boasting a thorough (if occasionally inconsistent) biography that in many respects mirrors Colbert’s, is no exception. That he exists outside the framework of a conventional fictional narrative—that he “walks among us,” so to speak—is irrelevant: The same rules apply. Traits serve as behavioral goalposts within which a character can operate and, in doing so, remain recognizably him. If anything, a defined set of characteristics is probably even more crucial in performance art than traditional storytelling, because a “living” character that has to engage on the fly with real people doesn’t have the benefit of rewrites, second takes, or skillful editing. It’s a more dangerous style of performance, in that sense, because it’s happening in your face in real time, and it requires an exceptionally specific set of interdisciplinary skills—hence the reason it’s so seldom attempted (and even less frequently well-executed). I can’t speak to whether Colbert understood his character intuitively or intellectually, but rest assured that he was indeed working within a set of fixed parameters; let’s have a look at those that have consistently and dependably defined “Stephen Colbert”:
1. “COLBERT” IS POLITICALLY ARCHCONSERVATIVE
“Now, I know there are some polls out there saying [President George W. Bush] has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
“Colbert,” like his role model and mentor, “Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly, is a self-described conservative “independent” who managed, despite his professed partisan impartiality, to embrace and promote some of the GOP’s most radical right-wing ideologies. On rare occasion he has been known to cede a point to the liberals, though only when guided by his conflicting conservative principles, such as when the box-office success of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (“the highest grossing PowerPoint presentation in history,” as he deemed it) compelled him to acknowledge the reality of global warming on the grounds that the free market had spoken.
2. “COLBERT” IS OPINIONATED/INTRANSIGENT/ANTI-INTELLECTUAL
“I’m not a fan of facts. You see, facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are.”
This is a man, after all, who, on his very first broadcast, coined a phrase that now appears in the Oxford English Dictionary: “truthiness”—the notion that what you feel in your gut on a given matter is ultimately more important than any relevant empirical evidence; that reality can, accordingly, be shaped by what you want it to be, rather than what it actually is.
“The truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you; I promise to feel the news at you.”
Imagine that: “Colbert” openly celebrated his own ignorance (“[Books are] elitist, telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen”), and even rechristened the practice of self-delusion with an affirmative designation!
3. “COLBERT” IS JINGOISTIC/XENOPHOBIC
“My grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants.”
“Colbert” celebrated American exceptionalism any way he could spin it (“You could say we’re the #1 nation at being the best at greatness”), even at the expense of everyone else (commenting on this past summer’s Central American child-refugee crisis, “Colbert” mitigated the sting of his ensuing anti-immigration tirade by reassuring us that “I care for these kids so… very… publicly”). Let’s not forget that this is a man who titled his book I Am America, which says as much about the current trait as it does the next one…
4. “COLBERT” IS EGOCENTRIC/SELF-AGGRANDIZING/NEEDLESSLY COMPETITIVE
“On this show, your voice will be heard—in the form of my voice.”
He couldn’t introduce a guest without racing out from behind his desk to bask in the audience’s welcoming applause. He ran recurring segments called “Who’s Honoring Me Now?” and “Formidable Opponent,” the latter of which featured a vigorous topical debate whereby “Colbert” himself argued both sides. He jumped on any prevailing trend, especially those initiated by his pundit competitors, such as when he emulated Hannity’s “Great American Panel” with his own hastily assembled “Great Available Panel.” He was in every way staggeringly self-centered and petty.
5. “COLBERT” IS BELLIGERENT/COMBATIVE/FULL OF BRAVADO
“The pen is mightier than the sword—if you shoot that pen out of a gun!”
His frequent opening salvo during interviews, regardless of the subject’s professional occupation or political leaning, was, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” Even the titles of many of his recurring segments were antagonistic and/or fear-mongering in nature: “Un-American News” (in which he covered international affairs), “Movies That Are Destroying America” (film reviews), and “Stephen Hawking Is Such an A-Hole” (self-explanatory).
In addition to his traits, “Colbert” was rounded out by several idiosyncrasies (another Beyond Structure technique), like his irrational phobia of bears (“Bears are godless killing machines”) and “crippling Vicodin addiction.”
You’ll note that nowhere to be found in those trait groupings is the characteristic stupid. Though his pigheaded behavior, often hypocritical viewpoints, and dogmatic adherence to his narrow-minded principles may certainly (and intentionally) reflect a startling degree of ignorance, “Colbert” himself isn’t necessarily stupid. As David Freeman teaches, generally when a fictional character flaunts a contrived behavior or attitude, it’s a sign of emotional overcompensation for some personal shortcoming, like the way House of Cards’ Frank Underwood projects levelheaded pragmatism to disguise his ruthless ambition for power. Here’s the thing about “Colbert,” though: With the possible exception of his archconservative politics, all of his traits are protective mechanisms. None of them are the characteristics of an emotionally centered person. That he has so many can only be a sign of pathological insecurity—his “fatal flaw,” an attribute occasionally glimpsed but never explored, as “Colbert,” unlike a fictional character in a standard narrative, was never designed to fulfill a transformational arc. Arcs are a staple of fiction that infuse stories with emotional depth by dramatizing personal growth and offering the audience, correspondingly, vicarious catharsis; while we are all subject to change, that kind of profound transformation seldom, if ever, unfolds with such compact efficiency here in reality.
“REALITY HAS BECOME A COMMODITY”
For all of the reasons above, “Colbert” was a character like any other—defined by a consistent and finite set of traits—and no other: governed, like the rest of us, by myriad irrational impulses stemming from underlying psychic wounds that will likely never be consciously acknowledged, let alone rehabilitated. You simply couldn’t get away with a protagonist like him in a work of conventional fiction: His excessive personal flaws/neuroses would strain both the limitations of your contained narrative as well as the audience’s willingness to empathize with the character. Which brings us to one of the great ironies of “Colbert” (even for a shtick predicated on irony): that a fictional character who has, for the past decade, talked directly at camera to us every night—and even hosted public rallies, testified before a congressional subcommittee, established his own Super PAC, and emceed the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner—proved himself credible enough to have earned a place in our daily reality, and yet would be too preposterous to be believable in our works of fiction!
Spinal Tap took the piss out of one of our most cherished (and bombastic) pop-cultural institutions: rock and roll (Tap, like “Colbert,” were depicted as ultimately too timid and myopic professionally to blaze a trail in their own right, preferring instead to glom on to the flavor of the month); Colbert ushered Tap’s brand of metafictive satire to its next evolutionary stage, challenging not merely our sociopolitical establishments, but our very ideologies—our politics—and the habits that shape them, both passive (our consumption of cable news) and active (our role and responsibilities as citizens). It was interactive performance art as the ultimate expression of truthiness: a consensus reality by which we tacitly submitted to the willful suspension of fact (that Colbert was a satirist, not a journalist; that we were fans of Colbert, not acolytes of “Colbert”) in order to expose deeper emotional truths from which we might glean personal and/or intellectual insight—that elusive catharsis so prevalent in fiction yet so woefully lacking here in the real world. In the course of his grand, avant-garde experiment, still at the height of its cultural influence seventeen years after the character’s debut, Colbert achieved exactly what good fiction aims to do—tell truth via “lies”—only the prolonged duration of and collective immersion in the satiric pageant that was “Stephen Colbert” (for The Colbert Report, like This Is Spinal Tap before it, was but one facet of a much broader act) rendered the experience exponentially more resonant than any self-contained work of fiction ever could.
For all of his “shortcomings,” there will never be another quite like “Colbert.” He taught us to perceive reality as it is, not as we’d prefer it to be, and his alter ego’s singular subversive wit was the sugar that made that bitter pill a strange pleasure to swallow night after night. That his signature lesson applies this week to him may in fact be his final ironic statement: Reality will be a whole lot harsher without the one and only “Stephen Colbert.”