The Myth of COLBERT NATION Millenials?

Curator's Note

Stephen Colbert is funny and always entertaining, but is his irony-laced satire toxic for democracy?

Numerous scholars like Henry Jenkins often praise "Colbert Nation" for its use of satire to both better inform and politically mobilize its fandom. Like The Daily Show, its 2005 spin-off The Colbert Report has been subject to frequent media studies that suggest these satirical comedy programs attract -- or help create -- better informed citizens. For years, Millenial viewers of satirical news have performed better on knowledge of current political events than viewers of cable news or FOX fans, thanks to the “Colbert Bump” or 2010’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”

Other critics, however, worry that such commodified political irony actually creates politically disengaged Millenials as cynical, passive consumers. Millenial voters have become increasingly disengaged since the first Obama election. An anemic 12% of registered Millenials cast ballots in 2014 Midterm elections... and almost half voted Republican! Despite expectations and self-professed interest, these Colbert Nation Millenials don’t deliver at the polls when it matters.

So what are we to make of this startling discrepancy? Does Colbert’s mass-marketed “truthiness” make us more engaged citizens, or are audiences just passive ironic hipsters "in on the joke" that political awareness won't extend beyond our remote control? Is this "Colbert Nation" a myth for inert Millenial clicktivism? With his move to The CBS Late Show’s more conservative demographic, will Colbert sell-out his satiric edge? Are there rhetorical limits for commodified political satire when its "funny for money" catharsis caters to corporate profits over educating activism?

Sure, it's all just for laughs, but Colbert's influence is very real. I retain hope that recent GOP efforts at disenfranchising young voters -- alongside #BlackLivesMatter activism and Bernie Sanders populism -- might help politically mobilize Millenials to "rock the vote." Millenials have proven more active at the local level, where gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts are mitigated by the rewarding immediacy of community micro-causes. Is it possible for this national trend of Millenial voter apathy to evolve into a political reawakening, or are today’s cynical youth content to knowingly chuckle along with the political inanity from their sofa?

The Colbert persona, a savvy Culturejamming showman, has proven that he successfully appeals to both impulses.



Shaun, in the acousemetre words of Talk Soup, "Sooo Meaty!" You lay out the hyperbolic conundrum that surfaces when discussing the open-ended media effects political satires like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have on audiences (and millennial hipsters in particular, as you put it). This is the ultimate question not in terms of humorous affect but in the deliberative function of satire as social influence in a televisual society. I think one way to combat dangerous pits like catatonic voter turnout can be to curve audience behaviors from passive to active consumption. This is certainly one way we are trying to redirect student learning in the classroom and highlight the utility of popular culture, not as spectacular distraction from everyday tumult, but instead as springboard to re-engage the democratic ebb and flow of community at a local-region-national-global-contextual level. Let's not forget Colbert's Super PAC brought in an absurd amount of money, which we might equate to donors "wasting" economic currency toward a gimmick steeped in cultural currency, albeit a powerful one that was as absurd and as it was informative. And that was the point. When Colbert uses satire to educate, to slow down and inform whether ironically or in character, the Stephen Q. Colbert character becomes a kind of Mr. Rogers to audiences that may have spent more time texting and driving as opposed to listening to NPR on the radio. I would contend that when the writing reached these kinds of strategic peeks, the show found second life as viral material for many leading news sites the following days and even weeks. This is where that fuzzy trickster definition of "not journalism"-journalism comes into swing, which is something I expound upon more during Day 4's curation for the IMR Colbert Week. You leave us with an ethical dilemma and one that pits audiences between their national role as consumers vs. their natural role as humans. Are we to enjoy Colbert with coffee and cereal, legs kicked up in a recliner, or stream it feverishly on the way to city hall? Does Stephen work as corporate shill in service to the almighty dollar (Doritos! BudLite Lime! The Celebritizing Colbert Bump!), as a "funny" humanitarian with a platform, or as a lifelong entertainer still performing for his large family of siblings and beloved mother? As we tend to end so many of our scholarly conversations, the answer is not an either/or so much as a both/and. And yes, it seems even the New York Times is trying not to be upstaged by the forward-planning editors and contributors at In Media Res. );-)>

Thanks, Garret, for jumping in! I surely appreciate your defense of Colbert as a prankster pedagogue, since his satire does indeed offer entertaining engagement with issues of the day that helps educate audiences. His "not journalism"-journalism, as you put it, springs from his faux-FOX-punditry spoof of "Papa Bear" O'Reilly that turns "Truthiness" into a pretty deft tool for speaking truth-to-power. Despite the bad rap of Millennials from some media and political activists, there's little doubt that these post-Gen Xers are becoming better informed and more interested in politics thanks to the satirical "Fake News" programs. Oliver is killing it with his detailed examinations of pressing issues, for sure, as the favorite heir apparent to TDS and now-defunct Colbert Report! But I do want to emphasize the profound paradox at the core of such commercial programming, which makes it far more complicated than this essay's teasing title suggests. Yes, Colbert's satire informs as it entertains, but make no mistake which is in the driver's seat. Yes, his "Colbert Nation" fandom is engaged when called to action by his pranks, like his SuperPAC and almost-gubernatorial candidacy or the 2010 rally with Jon Stewart, but such "active consumption" seems to be for play-play but doesn't translate to the political real-Real of voting. Colbert's programming is indeed a mixed bag for democratic deliberation and active citizenship (I do despise the too-often-used label of consumers)... definitely better understood as a symptom rather than a panacea for our often alienated Digital Age of Mediated Experiences.

As academic but perhaps even more as informed viewer-fan, it is my fear [as hybrid Gen-X'er with Millennial tendencies] the programming paradox you suggest faces even greater danger of losing its social awareness as Stephen will no doubt be (corporately) encouraged to step even farther through the razzle-dazzle looking glass of the Hollywood industry machine. One concern we all seem to be floating so far this week is how much of Colbert's social conscious will dissipate from the writing and comedy now that he'll have carte blanche to gush over and sing along with any musician at his disposal. As much 'harmony' as music can bring to people, I can't help but wonder if this is the last we'll see of book authors, news editors, academics, and the like as premium guests. Because as this alternative brand of conversationalists have demonstrated, Colbert is not the only visual force informing the audience. [Sidenote: I have no doubt Neil deGrasse Tyson will continue to parody himself as incumbent public intellectual elect.]

Actually, I think Kelli Marshall (in her entry for COLBERT WEEK here) hit upon a key insight when she compared Colbert's pre-show online antics to those of his predecessor David Letterman as "absurdist"... which is not the same as full-fanged satire. Even when taking jabs at Jeb Bush hijacking his first LATE NIGHT show for a campaign raffle, Colbert veers towards silliness rather than the smug-snarky confrontation of his Comedy Central persona. Maybe that's a telling choice for what's to come?

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