September 26, 2007


The Man in the Irony Mask: Like Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, Stephen Colbert so completely inhabits his creation—the arch-conservative blowhard host of The Colbert Report, his Daily Show spin-off hit—that he rarely breaks character. As Colbert's new book, I Am America (And So Can You!), is published, Vanity Fair gets a revealing interview with the real thing: a master comedian, forever altered by family tragedy. (Seth Mnookin, October 2007, Vanity Fair)

The show's set is designed to emphasize the notion of Colbert as the supreme master of this self-created, enthusiastically narcissistic universe. Behind his desk, a faint, almost subliminal outline of a star frames Colbert's head. A series of lines that bisect a ring of concentric circles on the floor converge where Colbert is seated, as if he were a black hole toward which all matter and energy are drawn. His anchor desk is shaped like a giant C, and the colbert report is plastered on more than a dozen places on the set.

The Report (pronounced with a soft t, as is Colbert) debuted in the fall of 2005 as a spin-off of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, the critical and popular success that's often referred to by its host, Jon Stewart, as a "fake news" show. Stewart has turned The Daily Show into a cultural touchstone in the eight years he's been there, and has become such an icon that he hosted the Academy Awards in 2006. But The Colbert Report couldn't take a page from its forebearer's playbook. Stewart plays himself on TV—a smart, witty, liberal Jew who's alternately amused and enraged by the political realities of our time—and a large part of The Daily Show's popularity stems from his personal appeal.

Colbert's character, which grew out of his role as the most noxious and ill-informed of Stewart's on-air correspondents, is most definitely not the type of guy you'd want to share a beer with after work. If Colbert's show were to succeed, it would need its fans to embrace the type of grating know-it-all they would normally disdain. One of the ways the show attempted to do this was by having its audience affect the mob mentality from which Colbert's character drew his power. That way, viewers weren't just in on the joke, they were part of it.

"This show is not about me," Colbert explained his first night on the air. "No, this program is dedicated to you, the heroes.… On this show your voice will be heard, in the form of my voice." Colbert went on to define the show's ruling ethos as "truthiness," an almost Nietzschean philosophy inspired by President Bush's faith in those that "know with their heart" as opposed to those who "think with their head." If one part of the subtext here was how terrifying "truthiness" was in a world leader, another was that having the will to bend reality to reflect your every desire actually sounded pretty cool—as Colbert's id-driven character promised to demonstrate night after night.

This conceit has worked far better than anyone expected. Almost immediately, the Report attracted an audience of more than a million viewers a night.

...but the face beneath.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 26, 2007 6:04 PM

"If one part of the subtext here was how terrifying "truthiness" was in a world leader, another was that having the will to bend reality to reflect your every desire actually sounded pretty cool"

What is GW Bush's crime? He has expressed an undying faith in democracy and freedom.

Terrifying, that.

Posted by: Randall Voth at September 27, 2007 2:58 AM

This guy is much, much funnier than Jon Stewart.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 28, 2007 12:08 AM


I don't get it. How is his face ironic?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 28, 2007 12:09 AM

The mask is real. The face is fake.

Posted by: oj at September 28, 2007 5:53 AM