Calling on the Colbert Nation: How fan practices complicate irony

Curator's Note

Irony, we know, is always a slippery proposition. It not only functions in the service of a wide array of political interests, but simultaneously subverts and legitimizes its targets. Still, we can go a step further in recognizing irony’s ambiguities by seeing it not simply as a text or technique, but as a complex social interaction. As Linda Hutcheon suggests, irony (and parody, as a form of ironic representation) might be best viewed as a set of plural and shifting relations between text, context, ironist and interpreter. The complications of ironic interaction are particularly evident in the practices of the Colbert Nation, The Colbert Report’s active fan base. At Colbert’s invitation, fans have created videos, changed Wikipedia pages, and stuffed online ballots. Of their own accord, they have initiated several thriving fan sites and devoted countless threads to discussion of the show. Colbert himself has suggested that fans are essential to the Report’s parody, playing the adoring audience to his self-aggrandizing media persona. But fans cannot be understood merely as one more character within Colbert’s parody, for the meanings their practices generate can never be guaranteed nor wholly directed by the program’s producers (despite their efforts to channel fan activity into profit and brand loyalty). While fan practices may indeed extend or support the parodic text, they just as routinely disrupt, overlook, question and rewrite its ironic intentions. We can see this dynamic at work in the program’s “Green Screen Challenge,” in which audience members were invited to edit video of Colbert as a Jedi warrior. While most of the fan submissions that made it on air upheld the program’s parody, depicting Colbert as a right-wing hero fighting Democrats, peaceniks, and space creatures, many of those that did not took entirely different directions. “Angry Boy,” shown here, places Colbert in a 1950 educational film as Tommy, a boy obsessed with space monsters. While juvenile silliness is certainly a component of Colbert’s persona, here it becomes detached from his critique of right-wing media pundits. Instead, the creator channels the segment’s mock-heroic tone into a playful commentary on the helping institutions and the puerile nature of Colbert’s persona, reminding us that irony is an ambiguous communicative tool in which ironic texts and intentions are open to redirection from many sources, and in which meanings can never be prescribed.


Thank you Catherine for bringing this in. It serves as a reminder of how ambiguity is different from ambivalence or dissonance in cultural production, and the limitations of irony (or the bricolage, assemblage, montage, and other forms of cultural appropriation celebrated by de Certeau, Hebdige, Fiske, Jenkins and other scholars). This clip in many ways DEpoliticizes a show that is HYPERpoliticized, while at the same time retaining the ironic persona that allows for discursive play. The only remaining active political function is this text as a production, then; in other words, as a participant in Colbert's Green Screen Challenge (similar to Jon Stewart's critique of the YouTube debates and Viacom/MTV/Comedy Central "intellectual property" litigation on The Daily Show). But we're left with an important do almost anarchic expressions of irony, politically generated or not, function? When we look at the past few seasons of the Simpsons (or the Simpsons movie) we're confronted with the same issue...when is "politics" not active as the "political," if I may make that distinction?

It's refreshing at the same time that political parody and satire doesn't have to be political all the time, no? It would be tiring if Stewart, Colbert, etc. were wholly political. But, for instance, much of Stewart's schtick is just funny as silly schtick. When I interviewed Simpsons viewers who deeply loved its parody and satire, many also really appreciated that it could be sweet, endearing, juvenile, etc. at the same time. Thus, as unpolitical as this clip is, it's work like this that allows Colbert to be political at other times, and that plays a role in keeping his fans tuned in

I would agree with Jonathan. While the logic of this piece is certainly different than that of the show, it is not, by any means, an oppositional reading of the Colbert Report. It still fits in with the show's silly playfullness and love of pop culture pastiche. And while it does point to interesting questions about the almost limitless possibilities for redirecting and transforming irony, as Catherine points out, in this case, it seems that the creative eagerness of Colbert's viewers to keep the ironic ball in play can only work in the show's favour. By even posing the green screen challenge to begin with, Colbert seems to have been daring his fans to take their fandom to the next level, becoming like the Trekkies who write their own fan fiction (whether it has anything to do with the actual plot of the program or not).

I'm curious about the extent to which Colbert fans identify themselves--and work they produce--as "political." Do we, as academics, use the term in ways fans themselves wouldn't? And if we do use it differently, or at least more enthusiastically, why is that the case?

Seeing as I don't want to reiterate what's already been discussed above, I'll make note of the parent clip's contribution to the Mental Health Film Board's Series entitled "Emotions of Every-Day Living." I'm wondering to what extent irony is quickly becoming (if it hasn't already become) a tactic of resistance embedded in the practices of everyday life. It seems to me that irony - as a rhetorical tool - is not the exclusive property of political satirists, culture jammers, ironic activists (or as we saw yesterday) right-wing Republicans; rather, irony is a crucial part of our meaning-making strategies in a media environment that encourages its consumption across a range of texts. This clip reminds us that irony is, as Catherine noted, a slippery proposition, one that remains attractive to a wide range of practitioners.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.