Stephen Colbert, Court Jester
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard
I have an admission to make: I’m in serious withdrawal. “Hi, my name is Kimberlee and I’m addicted to The Colbert Report.” Even though, as a fellow writer, I am completely in sorority (and fraternity) with the writers on strike, I must admit I am suffering without my daily infusion of Monsieur Colbert’s sardonic wit.
So, to pass the time until corporate America comes to its senses, I decided to write about my cult hero from my own perspective—that of an art historian entranced by the history of fools.
Fools you say? A resounding “Yes!” The “Fool” precisely describes the part that Stephen Colbert plays. And furthermore, he should wear that badge with pride. For, the Fool has engendered a long, illustrious tradition.
Whether tribe or nation, human society has always had a clown or fool figure in order to test its communal structures. The Fool served the indispensable role of inciting restorative laughter as well as puncturing any pretensions to rise above our human estate. In the evolving cultures of kingship, the Fool served as the monarch’s comic foil, and even his alter ego. The Court Jester had special dispensation to “tell it like it is”, even to the king—again, puncturing pretensions and serving as the royal check and balance. Such royal fools lasted in until Absolutism in Europe climbed towards its apogee, and imperious kings no longer suffered Fools or their probing questions. Here in America, since the Revolution, we’ve had to settle for a President and other Public Servants to serve as our comic scapegoats. However, unlike our contemporaries, our original American forefathers provided much less popular humor. One might argue that this is because they earnestly strove for equality with their peers and, in comedy, those who seek ultimate power are the funniest to watch fall. In our own times, as the current administration ceaselessly consolidates power, wresting it from constituents, the imbalance has become palpable. Predictably, here is where Stephen Colbert comes in.
If we could liken our current administration to an Absolutist Monarchy, Stephen Colbert is serving as its heady Court Jester. But, you may ask, how is it that Colbert is routinely dismissed by those in power as nothing more assailing than a comedian, a “Fool.” Luckily, they tragically underestimate the ritualistic power of laughter.
If he seems to fly just below the White House’s radar, it is for two reasons. One, Post-Enlightenment society believes in the primacy of the infallible intellect to the exclusion of comic modes. And, second, Colbert has reinvented the “Fool” paradigm for the twenty-first century in remarkable ways. Most noticeably, he has abandoned the traditional outward markers of the Fool: for example, he shuns motley (outlandish, colorful garb), replacing it with Brooks Brothers suits and rimless glasses. His “sveltiness” leaves behind the traditional extremes of either skeletal thinness or perverse rotundness that characterized court jesters, and his height inverts their typical diminutive scale. Moreover, the suave demeanor and superficially satirical mind of his on-screen character belie deeper intentionality. These paradigmatic shifts allow Colbert to blend into his intended pinstriped context with more camouflage, and definitely in a more roguish way. One may not see him coming, a tree within the (updated) power suit forest.
In fact, Colbert has “had” many of his intended targets on his show seemingly without their knowing that they’re being systematically parodied at every turn. Or, as some suggest, perhaps his guests are knowingly self-deprecating, or just anxious to get in that coveted face time with the elusive “Gen X-ers” and “Gen-nexters”. Perhaps the guests justify their Colbert Show appearances with a “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” sort of approach. But, it seems that those politicians and politicos sorely underestimate the facile intellect, cynicism and world-weariness of Colbert and those in the 20-40 year old age group. It is a truism that you just can’t say something and be taken at your word anymore. Or, for that matter, even attempt to play the self-aware patsy; in the end you’re still the butt of their perspicuous mockery of authority.
Herein lies Colbert’s genius. He dons Conservative mannerisms and paroxysms with such deftness that he can seamlessly caricature their own shamelessly pandering, populist caricatures-and those of their media outlets. When they call him on it, he laughs the laugh of invincible “Truth” in the face of “Truthiness.” He winks and shrugs his shoulders; he plays at playing.
Indeed, most illustrative of his Fool status Colbert uses his wit to cut both ways—placing him squarely in the overall indefinable position of Folly. As many of his Democratic guests have seen, he does not spare them scrutiny because of their party affiliation—it goes without saying that they are cogs in the same Beltway machine as the Republicans. And, so when Colbert ran for President of the United States, he approached both parties with equal fervor and disgust.
Judging him by his free spirit and entrepreneurialism, one might short-sightedly conclude that Colbert is, at heart, an Independent. But, in reality, he is not aligned with the political party of that name either. Rather, as history teaches us, his nuanced status as Fool means that his persona exists completely outside of the system. He can powerfully jibe and cajole because he has no position, he is at once everywhere and nowhere. Every-man and no-man.
As “Nemo” is Latin for “no-man,” it is a great epithet for Colbert. It follows that we might consider the Colbert Report as a popular culture journey through the depths of our Post-modern society with Colbert as our feisty, changeable captain.
I, for one, will be so glad when his Nautilus of a show next surfaces, registering on the TV radar, and beginning the next chapter of our great American novel.
“O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up-for you the flag is flung-for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths-for you the shores crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning…”
— Walt Whitman
Bread and Circus contributing writer Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.