Colbert’s Public Forum: Will We Meet Again?

December 21, 2014
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ColbertStephen Colbert, the character, has ridden off into the sunset. Or to be more precise, flown to the stars along with Santa, a strangely unicorned Abraham Lincoln, and that other immortal TV legend, Alex Trebek. Most post-mortems for The Colbert Report written this past week have been concerned primarily with the loss of the character – that unprecedented satirical voice so gifted in using parody to pierce the simulacrum of contemporary political discourse. I’m not sure, however, that the satirical voice will be the greatest loss here. After all, as Colbert himself noted on the finale, not much has changed for the better since he went on air. Right-wing know-it-alls are still defending torture on cable TV, American troops are still fighting in the Middle East, the national political system is more dysfunctional than ever, and the national discourse is no less truthy than it was a decade ago. The power of satire, apparently, has its limits.

On the other hand, the finale reminded us of a different, no less remarkable contribution the show has made over the years – the platform it provided to an astounding array of voices and the fascinating public conversation it built in nightly, seven-minute segments. For the finale’s grand sing-along, some 100 people joined Colbert in the studio to say farewell, an amazing who’s-who of American life. There were musicians and actors — rock and roll legends and Hollywood A-listers – along with ballet dancers and classical performers. There were politicos and pundits, including Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Congresswoman who sparred with Colbert better than anyone. The stars of broadcast news were on hand, as were opinion writers, political journalists, and cultural critics, who stood side-by-side with ambassadors and policy wonks. There were astronauts, athletes, and adventurers; historians and scientists; inventors and entrepreneurs; and social activists from the anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist to the fast food minimum wage proponent Naquasia LeGrand. And again, as Colbert reminded us, that was only a miniscule percentage of the thousands of guests who appeared on the program.

Colbert SalutesWhile I’ll miss Colbert’s razor sharp satire, for me the loss of this broad and deep public forum will be harder to bear. Even The Daily Show does not offer the same kind of far-ranging conversation, continually shifting among politics and entertainment, art and accomplishment, policy and philosophy, innovation and advocacy. And that certainly isn’t the stock-and-trade of network late night, which is largely conceptualized as a marketing arm of the entertainment industry, with an occasional foray into politics and public affairs.

At the same time, I am hopeful that while he leaves the character behind, Colbert can approximate this public conversation on his forthcoming Late Show. He doesn’t need to be in-character to do so – indeed, he progressively moved away from the character as the Report went on. And freedom from the character could very well grant him greater flexibility in adopting multiple conversational modes. He won’t need to posture as the blowhard (or in the case of the Better Know a District and Fallback Position segments, the inept and over-privileged dunce), or display the verbal aggression he learned from Papa Bear O’Reilly. But he’ll certainly be able to remain smart and silly, and I suspect surprisingly provocative. Ultimately, though, he (and the staff who book his guests) will need CBS’s blessing. The network has hired him in the hopes that he will help to reinvent, or at least revitalize, the form. Will it take the risk and let him do so? Will he be able to interview people such as NIH Director Francis Collins (who attended the sing-along, and to whom Colbert once proclaimed, “I love finding out what you guys are doing down at the NIH”)? I can only hope CBS, whose bread-and-butter is the CSI franchise, will love that too.


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One Response to “ Colbert’s Public Forum: Will We Meet Again? ”

  1. John Stephens on December 22, 2014 at 9:17 PM

    Geoff – very good thoughts. It is an amazing array of folks, ideas and connections that TCR lifted up. Even the famous ones got into something different in a Colbert interview. My only quibble is whether the array really reached the level of public conversation. Exposure, yes. Intriguing or off-beat ideas/exchanges – yes. But the Colbert persona and need for laughs often limited how much conversation occurred. Certainly more than in other late-night settings. And your hope the CBS will provide the space to try things is well put. From the peanut gallery, JBS