Truthinessology: The Stephen Colbert effect becomes an obsession in academia

July 9, 2012

Nation, our so-called universities are in big trouble, and not just because attending one of them leaves you with more debt than the Greek government. No, we’re talking about something even more unsettling: the academic world’s obsession with Stephen Colbert.

Last we checked, Colbert was a mere TV comedian, or a satirist if you want to get fancy about it. (And, of course, being college professors, they do.) He’s a TV star, like Donald Trump, only less of a caricature.

Yet ever since Colbert’s show, “The Colbert Report,” began airing on Comedy Central in 2005, these ivory-tower eggheads have been devoting themselves to studying all things Colbertian. They’ve sliced and diced his comic stylings more ways than a Ginsu knife. Every academic discipline — well, among the liberal arts, at least — seems to want a piece of him. Political science. Journalism. Philosophy. Race relations. Communications studies. Theology. Linguistics. Rhetoric.

There are dozens of scholarly articles, monographs, treatises and essays about Colbert, as well as books of scholarly articles, monographs and essays. A University of Oklahoma student even earned her doctorate last year by examining him and his “Daily Show” running mate Jon Stewart. It was called “Political Humor and Third-Person Perception.”

The academic cult of Colbert (or is it “the cul of Colbert”?) is everywhere. Here’s a small sample. Jim . . .

●“Is Stephen Colbert America’s Socrates?,” chapter heading in “Stephen Colbert and Philosophy: I Am Philosophy (And So Can You!),” published by Open Court, 2009.

●“The Wørd Made Fresh: A Theological Exploration of Stephen Colbert,” published in Concepts (“an interdisciplinary journal of graduate studies”), Villanova University, 2010.

●“It’s All About Meme: The Art of the Interview and the Insatiable Ego of the Colbert Bump,” chapter heading in “The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News,” published by McFarland Press, 2011.

●“The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report,” a 2009 study in the International Journal of Press/Politics that its authors described as an investigation of “biased message processing” and “the influence of political ideology on perceptions of Stephen Colbert.” After much study, the authors found “no significant difference between [conservatives and liberals] in thinking Colbert was funny.”

Colbert-ism has insinuated itself into the undergraduate curriculum, too.

Boston University has offered a seminar called “The Colbert Report: American Satire” for the past two years, which explores Colbert’s use of “syllogism, logical fallacy, burlesque, and travesty,” as lecturer Michael Rodriguez described it on the school’s Web site.

This fall, Towson University will roll out a freshman seminar on politics and popular culture, with Colbert as its focus.

All this for a guy who would undoubtedly mock-celebrate the serious study of himself.

Satirical tradition

The college crowd says Colbert is worthy of study because his single-character political satire is unique in the annals of television. His character, an egomaniacal right-wing gasbag, connects him to a long Western satirical tradition going all the way back to the Roman poet Horace and the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, although neither of those guys had basic-cable gigs.

“Colbert deserves to be held against the greatest satirists in American history,” says Sophia McClennen, a professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Penn State and the author of “Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy.”

McClennen says Ben Franklin and Mark Twain — to name-drop two of Colbert’s forebears — used satire to mock the powerful, critique prevailing social attitudes and shape American democracy “at a moment when the U.S. was in the midst of transformation, change and crisis. . . . My argument is that our democracy is in a tough spot now, when corporations are exercising increasing power over government, and that Colbert captures this moment as they did.”

Cross-cultural appeal

Geoffrey Baym, a media studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, says “The Colbert Report” and its host have compelled the people who study political communications to take entertainment TV seriously and the people who study entertainment and popular culture to think more about politics.

“I’m sure there are still a lot more books out there on CBS News and Edward R. Murrow, but you could argue that the emergence of satire news at this level is an important phenomenon that I don’t think we still completely understand,” says Baym, the author of “From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.”

Colbert, Baym says, “is doing something important in a political sense” by educating his TV audience about the nuances and defects of the electoral system. He cites Colbert’s ongoing segments about his self-created super PAC — “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” — as an unprecedented example of information, entertainment and activism.

The program also works as a kind of “gateway” for greater civic engagement for young people, says Amy Bree Becker, a communications studies professor at Towson who will teach the school’s Colbert course next semester.

“It’s a very good way to get young people who would normally not pay much attention to politics to learn a little more,” she said. “You have to know something to get the joke. [The show] encourages people to find information from other sources.”

Becker suggested there’s another obvious reason why students and professors enjoy studying Colbert: He’s a lot funnier than Emerson or Keats or Kierkegaard.

“People in universities like to laugh, too,” she said.

And that’s the Wørd.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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