In last week’s post, we looked at the unique role The Colbert Report plays in modern society as critic of both the government and the press as well as a third role as a kind of drawing force that brings a disaffected public into the arena of political discourse. Although the first two roles will always play a certain importance in discussion surrounding The Colbert Report, it is this third role that is most pertinent to linking last week’s reading to this week’s discussion.
The element of The Colbert Report I am focusing on this week is the question of its effect on the perceptions and thoughts of its viewership. In a study released in December of 2008, Jody C. Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris found that young adults (the average age of their sample group was 19.8 years old) who watched The Colbert Report were more likely to have right-leaning affinities.
If Stephan Colbert The Neo-Conservative Pundit was real, this would be a great thing. But since he’s not, what we’re now seeing is a political parody being misinterpreted by its audience as reality.
The same findings were not true of other, often-compared comedic political commentary shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and late night talk shows with hosts like Jay Leno and David Letterman. This is because The Colbert Report is unique in its role as a parody. While other political “soft news” programs criticize and mock government, the humor is simple. It is the host, as himself, mocking “them”, whomever they may be. The Colbert Report, however, looks something more like: Stephan Colbert the political pundit, played by Stephan Colbert the Comedy Central actor, critiquing the government and liberal media in a pseudo-ultra-conservative absurdist social commentary, while also maintaining a healthy critique of all things government and media related.
Because a parody is funnier the more accurately it reflect reality, the line between the two becomes blurred, especially to viewers unfamiliar with the premise of the show. In his article, “An experimental study of satire as persuasion , C.R. Gruner noted that “the less direct the satire … the more likely it is to be entertaining; and the more direct the satire, the less likely it is to be entertaining” (1965, p. 149).
There is also the fact that the type of humor used in parody is different from other types of humor found in political critiques.
“Jokes told by late-night talk show hosts like Jay Leno or David Letterman about presidents, presidential candidates, Congress, and so on, are built around simplistic, preexisting negative stereotypes,” Baumgartner and Morris note.
The Colbert Report, however, is satire — not merely critique.
According to the article mentioned above, satire has multiple layers of messages it seek to convey to the audience. On the superficial layer, there is the explicit message: the words coming out of Colbert’s mouth without any sub-textual meaning. On the deeper layer, there in the implicit message: what Colbert is really saying or criticizing. Therefore, the explicit message Colbert often conveys is one of anti-liberal ideology. Baumgartner and Morris not that Colbert often refers to liberals and Democrats as “commies,” or “pinkos,” or “bleeding hearts”. What he actually criticizing through use of parody here, however, are the bellicose conservative pundits who are so quick to disregard and degrade liberal ideals.
There is humor on both the explicit and the implicit levels, but what we are seeing from the study is that young audiences are missing the implicit messages of The Colbert Report as a political parody.
A couple examples from this week’s episodes are able to better demonstrate the dichotomy between these implicit and explicit messages:
From the October 8th episode, Colbert talks about the dangers of a second-term Obama presidency. “If he’s willing to talk about going after Wallstreet during his first term, he might actually do something his second,” Colbert warns. Taken completely on its face, Colbert makes this sound like a legitimate worry. With subtext however, we see both a critique of Obama’s ineffectual policies concerning regulating Wallstreet as well as a parody of the conservative party and their reputation for protecting business as the expense of the American people’s welfare. Without subtext and the knowledge that this performance is not meant seriously, an impressionable audience may think that he/she should be fearful of a second Obama presidency without ever truly questioning why. After all, Stephan is worried. Isn’t that enough? And shouldn’t they be too?
Another instance in which the explicit message may overshadow the implicit is in the October 10th episode, where Stephen tells his audience to “forget Obama’s weak ass economic sanctions” in reference to how to handle mounting tensions in the Middle East. Out of context and void of subtext, this sentiment echoes one voiced by conservative pundits everywhere. The Republican stance right now is that Obama has weakened America as a global authority by demonstrating a lack in leadership that has cast doubt amongst our allies and given ammunition to our enemies abroad. Reinserted into context however with Romney’s plan to put Middle Eastern leaders “on notice” should they continue to ignore UN demands, we see that Colbert is not attacking Obama’s foreign policy on being “weak” but parodying Romney’s policy for being vague, ineffectual, or perhaps even nonexistent.
Parody depends on the byplay of explicit and implicit messages, yet with an audience seemingly unable to distinguish the two, we must again the validity of The Colbert Report’s role as a inclusionary force in modern new media.
Baumgartner and Morris conclude their analysis of their findings by stating: “This study has shown that Colbert’s message is persuasive, but perhaps not in the way he or his writers intend. Instead of giving viewers pause to ponder the legitimacy of Colbert’s implicit criticisms of the far right, this experiment found that exposure to Colbert increases support for President Bush, Republicans in Congress, and Republican policies on the economy and the War on Terror. Furthermore, Colbert’s dual messages (explicit and implicit) appear to increase the chance that young viewers will become less confident in their own ability to understand politics. In other words, Colbert’s satire seems to confuse some young viewers.”
Perhaps it is strange that the very quality that makes The Colbert Report so well loved — it’s commitment to parodying as close to reality as possible — is also the one that seems to undermine its entire purpose and subvert its that all-important third role in political discussion.