The Field Guide acknowledges with regret the passing of the Colbert Report, a fine, rare, intelligent satire, which ended its ten year run yesterday. Stephen Colbert, the show’s host and creator, is departing to take over for David Letterman as host of the Late Show. While we’re sure that Colbert’s satirical wit will carry over, and look forward to enjoying its new facets and forms, the end of the Report all but surely closes the book on the character Colbert has played to perfection for a decade: the quintessentially obtuse, self-righteous and self-satisfied cable-news conservative.
It is not often enough observed that among pundits, liberals and conservatives are readily distinguished by their tone alone. There has never been a conservative equivalent to Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher or Al Franken – nor could there ever be. Conservatism is tedious business, and is as much defined by its monotonous, pseduo-religious humorlessness and fury, as liberalism is defined by wit and nuance. Though in fairness to conservatives, it isnt easy to tell a joke while wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross….
Take away the pompous self-righteousness, anger and indignation of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and little is left behind but a wool suit. Conservative national candidates are worse: the likes of Palin, Bachmann, Perry and Santorum are too shallow and slow-witted to deliver a punchline, much less blow a sax or croon a few bars of Barry White. When one comes across the similitude of actual intelligence among conservatives – in Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gingrich, Will or Krauthammer – invariably is it tinged with what one can only describe as “evil” – because, we infer, one who knows much must also know better.
Most conservatives lack the sensibility to be properly envious and bemoan the fact that great political satirists have always been liberals. Those of today build on the groundbreaking work of Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior and George Carlin, among others, who opened up new realms to commentary, using humor as a subterfuge to draw attention to issues that the public would be happier to ignore. To appreciate an irreverent approach to matters delicate and-or contentious, one must have a certain remove and an intelligence that, frankly, is rarely seen among conservatives, for whom taking things too seriously is seen as a virtue. However their knitted brows are a poor substitute for genuine seriousness, which brings with it the patient diligence needed to push inquiries beyond the easy and superficial.
Conservative pundits offer excesses of solemness and anger in place of real perspicacity, and as well a fog in which to hide the internal inconsistencies of their beliefs and the mutual antagonisms of their policy positions. Likewise does the humor and irony common to so many liberal commentators flow from a common source: they are the hallmarks of intelligence itself, which readily perceives the contradiction in all things, and humanity’s manifold imperfections. With those recognitions, compassion and comprehension naturally displace anger, and the intellect is freed to enjoy the variety, for good and bad, that is the spice of life.
And so we wish Stephen Colbert success as he moves on, mournful for the close of a splendid chapter, hopeful for one he begins anew on a bigger stage.
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Editor’s note: the winter holidays are upon us, and the Field Guide will only be posting intermittently between now and early January. We wish you a Merry and a Happy, and hope you’ll check in with us now and again.