“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.”
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.