Stephen Colbert Isn't the Only One With a Fictional Character

So Stephen Colbert will be replacing David Letterman when Letterman retires next year, and you'll be shocked to learn that at least one conservative is spitting mad about it. "CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America," said Rush Limbaugh. "No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservative values—now it's just wide out in the open." Funny, I thought Hollywood's assault on traditional American values was pretty overt already. But this is actually fitting, because I'll bet Limbaugh couldn't care less who's on CBS at 11:30. But Colbert's a liberal, so Limbaugh has to pretend to be angry about it. In other words, he's reacting exactly the way Stephen Colbert's character would.

Now it's true that Colbert based his character not on Limbaugh but (mostly) on Bill O'Reilly. And like Colbert, O'Reilly is himself playing a character named Bill O'Reilly, the only difference being that the Bill O'Reilly character is just a slight exaggeration of the actual Bill O'Reilly. Not that the man himself isn't a belligerent, arrogant right-wing bully, because he is. But no human being is that angry every minute of every day. (Interestingly enough, on those times O'Reilly went on Colbert or Jon Stewart's show, he was a dramatically different person—subdued, tentative, seemingly frightened in a situation where he wasn't in control).

But I find the idea that Colbert going to CBS is an assault on "the heartland" interesting, because "the heartland" has been eating up entertainment produced in New York and Los Angeles for quite some time now. It's also worth remembering that when he started, despite his Indiana roots Letterman himself was considered a radical, not politically but comedically. His ironic remove from the material, throwing in asides like "We're having more fun than humans should be allowed to have" after a mediocre joke, felt revolutionary and subversive. You wouldn't know it much to watch him now, when that kind of irony is old hat and his monologues are as dull and repetitive as everyone else's, but when Letterman first came on, he was considered the hip, rebellious host that only young people really "got." Their parents could watch Johnny Carson, but Letterman was cool.

I have no idea whether Colbert can make a network late-night show cool, but there's no doubt he's an extraordinary performer. To be honest, when I read about what The Colbert Report was going to be right before it began, I was skeptical about whether he would be able to sustain the character for an entire half-hour, four nights a week. But from the first episode, when he coined the word "truthiness" and uttered the immortal line, "Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you," his show was consistently funny and insightful. And it relied almost entirely on his performance; unlike Stewart, Colbert doesn't have correspondents to whom he passes off part of every show.

His character remained relevant because the people he was satirizing remained relevant. O'Reilly and Limbaugh and the rest of them are still going strong, enacting their kabuki of outrage every day and keeping their audience of angry elderly white people shaking their fists at their radios and televisions. Like Colbert, they're talented performers who have honed their personas over thousands of hours of practice. The only difference is, they pretend it isn't an act.

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