Is Stephen Colbert Worthy of Academic Study?

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July 11, 2012; Source: Washington Post

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post takes issue with the amount of scholarship those in academia are dedicating to Stephen Colbert, the host of Comedy Central’s faux-news program, “The Colbert Report.” “Last we checked, Colbert was a mere TV comedian…He’s a TV star, like Donald Trump, only less of a caricature,” Farhi writes. This is in contrast to some American professors who seem to view Colbert as the second coming of Mark Twain—a quick-witted satirist ready to lampoon American hypocrisy and political tomfoolery, often by demonstrating such stances himself. Boston University already offers a Colbert-centric course, and Towson University is planning to roll out a Colbert-focused freshman seminar in the fall, Farhi reports.

According to the University of North Carolina’s Geoffrey Baym, a media studies professor, Colbert may actually be marrying entertainment and activism, particularly in spotlighting the secretive—yet, for now, perfectly legal—nature of his very real super PAC, “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” which NPQ has taken note of in the past; Colbert also has his own 501(c)(4) social welfare “spooky PAC,” Colbert SHH! Nonprofits engaged in advocacy might be tempted to try to replicate Colbert’s success with some satire along these lines of their own, though this is a tricky path, and without the benefit of Colbert’s wit (and perhaps his cable TV reach), we imagine that many such attempts would fall flat.

Colbert is, of course, not the first funnyman to set his sights on lampooning social/political issues with an eye toward promoting change. Predecessors such as Richard Pryor, Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Al Franken and Wanda Sykes, just to name a few, haven’t been bashful about mixing political statements into their comic brew, and some political or activist comedians have made their way into the curriculum before, so perhaps what’s really bothering Farhi is the currency, reach and influence of Colbert as aided by social media.

Do you buy the concept of Colbert as activist, or is he merely an entertainer tapping into general discontent with secret money in the electoral process, among other maladies of the day, in order to deliver some gallows humor to weary citizens of a beleaguered democracy? And if the situation is as dire as Colbert’s jabs suggest, should America be laughing? Perhaps the answer to whether Colbert is a mere entertainer or a satirist/activist worthy of academic study will come from his generally young-skewing audience: will they remain tethered to comic amusement at the often childish dysfunction in D.C., or will the laughs of disbelief give way to unified and organized demands for corrective action? –Mike Keefe-Feldman