If Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America,” then Stephen Colbert – that is, the blowhard, conservative caricature he portrays on the parody news series The Colbert Report — might be “the most trusted fake newsman in America.”
In October 2005, Colbert ended his eight-year run on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to launch a spin-off on the same network.
In an interview with New York magazine in 2006, Colbert described the thesis of the show as this: “What you wish to be true is all that matters, regardless of the facts.”
And that is exactly what Colbert embodies on the show — an egomanical political pundit modelled after right-wing talking heads like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity.
In the first episode, the spectacled satirist coined the term “Truthiness” or “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”
Colbert thought he was being farcical when he came up with this expression, but the phrase stuck. In 2006, the American Dialect Society chose “truthiness” as the Word of the Year.
“It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore, ” Colbert explained in an interview with A.V. Club. “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist.”
In a presidential era practically defined by political doublespeak, Colbert may be the only “well-intentioned, poorly-informed, high-status idiot” honest enough to point out the hypocrisy in American media and politics.
Of course, the reason this character works so well probably has to do with the fact that Colbert is not a poorly-informed, egomaniacal simpleton, but someone whose life and career have been shaped by tragedy, curiosity, and unrelenting ambition.
Colbert was born on May 13, 1964, in Charleston, S.C. to an Irish-Catholic family. He was the youngest of 11 children and grew up imitating the geographically indistinct accents of TV news anchors because he “sensed that Southerners got stereotyped as being dumb.”
When Colbert was 10 years old, his father, a doctor, and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash. Colbert escaped into a world of fantasy novels (he was a huge “Lord of the Rings” fan) and Dungeons and Dragons.
Colbert studied acting at Northwestern University and joined Chicago’s Second City improv troupe after graduating. In 1996, he joined the “The Daily Show,” which was then hosted by Craig Kilborn, and became the show’s longest running political correspondent.
“He’d be comfortable not only in any discipline, but in any era,” says Jon Stewart, who is also a producer of The Colbert Report. “If you transplanted him to the 1600s and suddenly he was involved in the medieval arts, or dentistry, he would be fine. I consider him, oddly enough, like the Internet.”
Stewart’s assessment is pretty accurate — Colbert’s influence is probably as ubiquitous as the Internet. After all, this is the man who in 2006, announced his candidacy for presidency and in less than a week managed to get more than one million supporters to join the Facebook group created for his campaign. (Barack Obama’s group took more than eight months to get about 380,000 members).
This is the man who, with Jon Stewart, organised the “Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear” last October, where an estimated 215,000 people heralding signs like “Less Douche-y, More Truthy” and “Repeating something at increasing volume does not make it true” descended on the National Mall in Washington DC.
This is the man who took a trip to the Federal Election Commission Headquarters to seek permission for his unformed political action committee, Colbert Super Pac.
It is both the confidence and sheer ludicrousness of Colbert’s alter ego that gets the attention of so many diverse groups of people. Deep down, even Colbert’s biggest targets know that he isn’t mocking to be mean-spirited, but to prove a point: the media and politics are full of irony.
Behind the buffoonery is a deep-thinking man who connects with his audience because of his visionary, ironic humour.