America According to Colbert: Satire as Public Pedagogy post 9/11
Echoing a common worldwide opinion of post 9/11 political discourse in the US, George Monbiot of London’s The Guardian asked days before the 2008 election: “How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue of ignorance?” What Monbiot’s claim misses, though, was the significant presence within the US of those who make a virtue of mocking those who make a virtue of ignorance. Almost immediately following the attacks of 9/11 a series of comedians emerged on the national scene who used satire, irony, mockery, and parody to offer the public an alternative to the rhetorics of ignorance, militarism, and hubris that dominated much public discourse. And their massive fan base proves that their combination of comedy and social critique resonated with a population hungry for a space through which to vent their frustrations, share a laugh, and mock those in power.
One of the most visible comedians to occupy such a space is Stephen Colbert, who was part of the cast of The Daily Show prior to 9/11 and then acquired his own show in 2005. His program, The Colbert Report, parodies personality driven political shows like The O’Reilly Factor. With fake news and simulated punditry accompanied by intense critique of the “virtue of ignorance” that governs both politics and media in the US, programs like Colbert’s offer their audiences ways to combine entertainment with political reflection. When Colbert began his program in 2005, dissent was cast by the US government and its supporters as highly unpatriotic, even criminal. Satire was one of the few means through which the public could express resistance to reigning political policies and social attitudes.
By inquiring into the ways that Colbert has functioned as a public intellectual, this paper suggests that satire is a comedic and pedagogic form uniquely suited to provoke critical reflection. Its ability to underscore the absurdity, ignorance, and prejudice of commonly accepted behaviors by means of comedic critical reflection offers an especially potent form of public critique, one that was much needed in the post 9/11 environment. This paper argues that, in contrast to the anti-intellectualism, the sensationalism, and the punditry that tend to govern most mass media today, Colbert’s program offers his audience the opportunity to understand the context through which most news is reported and to be critical of it. In so doing Colbert’s show further offers viewers an opportunity to reflect on the limited and narrow ways that political issues tend to be framed in public debate. Colbert’s satire, then, is a form of what Henry Giroux defines as “public pedagogy” since it demonstrates the use of media as a political and educational force. Recognizing that the political opinions of most US citizens are shaped by an uncritical acceptance of the issues as provided by the mainstream media, Colbert uses the same venue to critique that process.
By impersonating a right-wing pundit, Colbert differs in significant ways from other critical comedians since his form of humor embodies that which it critiques. This paper suggests that this form of parody has both the potential to be more incisive in its critique and also more dangerous, since its dependence on a cult of personality could merely mirror the same passive viewing practices common to programs like The O’Reilly Factor.
This paper also contributes to the ongoing conversation about how satire and humor post 9/11 have been able to effectively encourage critical perspectives on major social issues, thereby providing an important source of public pedagogy. Focusing on one of the leading figures of “satire TV,” my paper claims that Colbert’s program incorporates a series of features that foster critical thinking and that encourage audiences to resist the status quo. By analyzing the context within which the program emerged and the specific features of the program, this book offers readers insight into the powerful ways that Colbert’s comedy challenges the cult of ignorance that has threatened meaningful public debate and social dialogue since 9/11.