Stephen Colbert is, at first glance, an odd replacement for CBS talk-show host David Letterman. When he drops the know-nothing character of the soon-to-end The Colbert Report, as he will for his new show, Colbert is sincere and quite passionate about social-justice issues. (Patrick R. Manning explored these aspects of Colbert, and found parallels with St. Augustine, here at America in February.) Traditionally, late-night hosts aim for a detached, pox-on-all-your-houses approach to politics, with Jay Leno famous for avoiding any further point of view in his opening monologues and concentrating on jokes about Bill Clinton’s sex life and Chris Christie’s weight. Colbert’s history suggests that he won’t be satisfied with such easy laughs.
Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh is not happy with this development, complaining that CBS “hired a partisan, so-called comedian, to run a comedy show” and the network “has just declared war on the heartland of America.”
Writing at Mischiefs of Faction, Georgetown University’s Jonathan Ladd says that Limbaugh is correct to be concerned, as Colbert’s work so far suggests a concern with social and economic inequality — and a sensibility far different from ironic media personalities such as the man who gave Colbert his start, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. Ladd argues that Stewart is part of a reformist tradition that used to be called “progressive”:
The main editorial perspective of the Daily Show is not modern liberalism, but a type of anti-partisan reform impulse that is always with us but probably peaked during the Progressive Era. Modern liberals often call themselves progressives because they think this is more popular label. However, reformers of the Progressive Era, which peaked in the 1900s and 1910s, were different from modern liberals. Early twentieth century progressivism encompassed a lot of disparate reform impulses, some of which contradicted each other. Yet one influential branch of Progressive Era reform centered on opposing corruption and partisanship in government and journalism. This led to opposition to urban political machines and to partisan control of nominations, as well as support for state referendum procedures and for professionalizing journalism. They thought more educated and nonpartisan journalists could referee and dampen political conflict, while increasing the public’s knowledgeability.
Stewart’s emphasis on the process of government (he’d be called a “goo-goo” in another era) marks him as a left-leaning Democrat in today’s America. The other main strand of political satire on current TV is a kind of libertarianism that mocks all institutions and all efforts to improve general welfare (think South Park and most sketch-comedy shows).
Colbert has the opportunity to put a new comic voice out there, one that’s explicitly critical of our self-absorption and indifference to others. (These themes come up often in Louie C.K.’s work, even as he gets his audience’s attention with scatological and “sick” humor.) I don’t know how far ahead CBS has thought this through, but I’m curious to see what they’ll let their new star get away with.
Wikipedia Commons photo by David Shankbone.