Stephen Colbert: A Media Maestro Plays Philly (Guest Voice)

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Today Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert kicks off his Pennsylvania coverage with a guest: MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. But is this symbolic for Campaign 2008 and journalism’s future? What’s the most effective way to deliver news to people on the Internet and to appeal to younger American voters? Video and web producer Joe Windish. offers this compelling original interview on the decline of traditional news an across-the-generations political information delivery system and the ascent of vehicles such as Comedy Central’s news-based comedy shows:

Stephen Colbert: A Media Maestro Plays Philly

by Joe Windish

The New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story this weekend was The Aria of Chris Matthews. Released to the web last Tuesday, bloggers had been baffled by it all week. Even Mark Leibovich, who wrote the story, noted that “three network officials asked me why I was writing about Matthews and not [Keith] Olbermann.”

The gist of the piece was that Matthews is an anachronism likely to be downsized when his $5 million a year contract is up next year. MSNBC’s now betting on Olbermann and David Gregory. Why the paper of record deemed it necessary to devote 8,000 words to that observation, I’ll never know.

Meanwhile, the whole way these guys are playing the cable news game seems a little passé to me. The big questions today are: how are we going to profitably port news over to the Internet, and how are we going to make it appealing to a younger demographic? Indications are that by either of these measures the leader in the cable news game right now is in not to be found at NBC, CNN, or FOX.

The hands-down champ is Comedy Central, whose Daily Show and Colbert Report have been playing by the fast and loose rules of comedy to beat journalism at the news game as far back as Indecision 2000. Since then Jon Stewart’s won two Peabody Awards for his election coverage, and he was joined just last week by Stephen Colbert when The Colbert Report won a Peabody of its own.

Today Stephen Colbert and his 80 staffers kick off a week of Colbert Report coverage of the Pennsylvania Primary from the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia. As it happens, Chris Matthews, a Philadelphia native, is slated to be Stephen’s first guest.

To put all of this into perspective, I called up Dr. Robert J. Thompson, Professor of Television and Popular Culture and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

I first heard Bob speak on Radio Open Source after Colbert’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech. I first interviewed him after Colbert’s outstanding program on the WGA strike. We spoke again by phone last week:

JW: You’ve referred to comedy as The Fifth Estate. Can you explain?

BT: I started calling comedy the 5th Estate to keep the 4th Estate of journalism in check several years ago… I think this whole notion of comedy as the Fifth Estate really, in many ways, is more important in these new shows that are actually doing parodies of news shows because it’s the idea that the Fourth Estate is keeping those first three in check. The idea of what’s going on in Colbert and The Daily Show and even some of what Saturday Night Live and shows like that, is that it’s not only dealing with the political issues but it is dealing with the way in which the mainstream news operations are covering the issues.

Let’s take, for example, the classic example of what Jon Stewart did in the lead up to the war, when he was really examining that issue in a way that a lot of reporters were not for fear of being called unpatriotic and all the rest of it. The whole Dixie Chicks phenomenon. I think there Jon Stewart was a lone voice crying in the wilderness that this was the stuff that ought to be covered. And he was really making fun of – with evidence, showed the clip and that kind of thing – of how this was being inadequately covered by the traditional journalist operation. So there, I think, what Jon Stewart was doing was a really important message about the lead up to the war, but about the way it was being inadequately covered.

JW: What’s your take on Colbert’s Peabody?

BT: Certainly the Peabody is another feather in the cap of respectability that Comedy Central’s hour-long block in late night television has been garnering. That Peabody just goes on the mantelpiece right next to the invitation to speak at the Washington Correspondents Association Dinner, and all kinds of other things that have just been being heaped upon these shows. So, the Peabody is another example of how these late night comedy shows that Comedy Central are doing are really being taken very seriously by a whole range of people… Now we should remember that it also says something about the Peabody Awards. The Peabody Awards are one of my favorite of the awards given because they really don’t operate on the traditional criteria of what we think would be good. Let’s remember that Colbert got a Peabody I believe at the same time that Project Runway got a Peabody. Project Runway is not the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth estate! However, it’s a really good show and I think it deserved its Peabody as did Colbert, but for different reasons. When you think of when Comedy Central first started, and when you think of a lot of the other shows that are on Comedy Central, and you think of how Colbert does that whole act when he dances across the stage when he’s about to interview someone, it’s really pleasing to think that this is now the Peabody Award winning Stephen Colbert!

JW: Colbert is a really tough interview. There’s not a lot of fluff on his show. He brings on hugely complex topics and seems to help his interviewees make their point. And the arc of the show through a season is almost like a college course, he is educating his audience. I come away blown away sometimes. It seems like to me a very high-brow news show. Bring me back to earth Bob.

BT: I agree with everything you said up to the news show. I even agreed up through and including high-brow. I think in the end, yes, you can call The Colbert Report educational television, in quotes. Whenever I heard those reports that so many of our young people were getting so much of their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report I thought to myself, that’s not a bad place to get it. Now, of course, it shouldn’t be the only place, but it certainly is a good place to stop.

Yes, I agree, it’s educational television. And I also agree that he’s got it worked out well enough that it’s almost got what appears to be a coherent curriculum. I mean there really is a sense of organization and progression of how he takes what has gone on in the previous 24 hours, weekend, whatever, and it’s got a certain seminar quality to it. I would have no problem calling it high-brow because what’s going on in those Colbert interviews is incredibly complex. He is juggling a number of balls in the air and he virtually never fumbles them.

Ball number one is he has got to stay in character as this O’Reilly-esque 24-hour cable-news guy. At the same time, he’s not only trying to stay in that character and be funny, but also to get his own opinion and analysis of these things, and then he also manages to make an awful lot of interviewees make more sense than they even knew they could. He really helps his interviewees get their point across because he needs for them to be clear in order for his mocking of it to work. If you’re just on there fumbling around and not being clear about what you say it’s a lot harder to make fun of you.

I think it’s a high brow show. I think it’s educational. And I think it is about the news. But I would stop at the point of calling it a news show. I think we’ve got a couple of categories that are out there. We’ve got, “the news,” …the news when it’s working is trying to adhere to a strict sense of journalistic guidelines. And then you’ve got comedy and satire, which doesn’t have to do that. I think we’ve got a lot of good comedy and satire out there now, and Colbert and The Daily Show are that, and you’ve got a lot of news, but the question is, do we have any good news? And I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to say there is no legitimate news show out there that is as good at doing what it does as Colbert and Jon Stewart are at doing what they do. So the level of achievement right now is higher in comedy, which doesn’t have to deal with all the journalistic stuff and all the rules but they’re better at what they’re doing than I think most news operations are at what they do.

JW: Back when we spoke about his WGA strike show, we spoke about the dizzying levels of complexity at play–with the correspondents’ dinner it was in the belly of the beast, with the press and the president right there–taking them on. With the WGA, he was a guild member. Here the elements he’s got going are the partnership with DonorsChoose.org, “Celebrate The Democralypse!” where you make a contribution to Pennsylvania public schools in the name of your favored candidate, and then there’s the Doritos tie-in.

BT: The levels of meaning are stacked up so high you wonder if the center can hold. The Simpsons was one of the greatest shows in America to really consistently lampoon corporate American culture. However, at the same time, The Simpsons was doing really deliciously insightful episodes about product tie-ins and how these companies were hypnotizing kids with commercials and bemoaning the influence of corporations on American life. Bart Simpson was selling Butterfingers and all kinds of other things. He was a perfect example, the epitome, of what that show lampooned so well.

With Colbert it’s a little different. With the Doritos Tour, clearly what he is doing is making fun of the way it seems like anything that ever happens in this country needs to be supported by a corporate donor who is doing it for the sake of advertising. And it is funny. Every time he brings out that bag of Doritos it’s really funny because we know exactly what he’s talking about. If we’d have ever landed on Mars in order to pay for the project the astronaut would have had to say, “Now that you’ve been to Mars where are you going to go to next? I’m going to Disneyland!” That’s probably how we’ll have to pay to go to Mars.

So in one way he’s making fun of it. On the other hand, in making fun of it, he’s doing it! And for that matter, both of these shows play on Comedy Central. Is Comedy Central a grass roots, independent, community theater group that is going up against the man? No. Comedy Central is owned by… hmm… let’s see… Viacom! One of the biggest, hugest, corporate giant, evil empire-ish, kinds of operations that you can imagine. This country right now is filled with these mind-boggling paradoxes which include the fact that some of the best commentary against corporate America happens to be coming from a channel owned by the poster-child for corporate America.

Now Colbert going to Philadelphia isn’t the first time we’ve had comedy covering these things. What’s happening now though is Colbert is going to Philadelphia not as sort of this fringe, comic thing – Comedy Central’s coverage of election night and so forth was always kind of alternative programming, the funny stuff if you don’t feel like watching the real coverage – he’s now going there as one of the most respected personages… Colbert is going to go there as a bona fide celebrity and, in many people’s eyes, myself included, as a public intellectual who happens to not be a journalist but who happens to be a comedian. And that’s where I unify this whole thing. I think American life is hopefully about a constant civic conversation that we’re in. If we have any hope for a democratic republic one hopes that we’re all in this civic conversation. And public intellectuals can lead that conversation and they don’t have to all be journalists. They can be novelists as has been the case in the past. They can be journalists. And there’s absolutely nothing saying they can’t be comedians. I think both Colbert and Stewart are public intellectuals and they just happen to be working in the idiom of comedy as opposed to in the industry of journalism.

Joe Windish is an accomplished video and web producer. His work has been seen on local and national television, and on one of the earliest commercial webcast channels. In 2003, after 28 years of living and working in New York City, Joe moved to rural Georgia so his life-partner could take a job as professor at a public liberal arts college. He blogs on politics, media, technology, gay life, and southern living at aTypicalJoe.com.

  

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