The Eyebrow Never Lies
t was the dead of January in New Hampshire, 2004, and the cast of The Daily Show was in town to do press during the Democratic Presidential Primary. I landed a 15 minute interview with Stephen Colbert—the show’s veteran correspondent, and a comedian I’d followed since his Second City days—and because I was pretty green at interviews, and 15 minutes can go by in a snap, I wrote and rewrote and rearranged my questions, and showed up at his motel in Merrimack half an hour early, to make sure I didn’t get lost.
I knocked on his door right on time, but when he let me in he said there was a problem: he was missing a cufflink. His flight left in an hour, and if he didn’t find it, his wife would kill him. So he drafted me into the search effort: we tore up the sofabed, looked under the tables, checked the kitchenette. Finally, I found the thing under his bed—we could start the interview.
Here’s the thing: the whole time we were on our knees, tearing his room apart, he never “broke character.” I’m not saying that he was “on,” or cracking jokes, but he was Stephen Colbert: articulate, assured, impeccable, and arch. Always one step away from a sarcastic comment. Inscrutably deadpan, like he just couldn’t help it. To this day, I wonder if he was fucking with me.
Anyone who’s seen him raise his eyebrow knows exactly what I’m talking about, and from his years on The Daily Show to his character on The Colbert Report, which just celebrated its 100th episode, he has kept the same poise, the same manner of speaking, and the same unshakable assurance in his body language. And thanks to several attention-getting stunts, like his roasting of President Bush at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner, America has gotten to know a lot about Colbert and his right wing pundit parody.
But people are still confused about it, and for good reason. His rigid style makes him merciless: In the “Better Know a District” segments, Colbert interviews U.S. Congressmen who are mostly unknown to anybody but their voters, and asks them awkward and even cruel questions. The point is to be funny, but Colbert never bails them out with a reassuring wink. (He probably physically can’t wink—the muscles that raise that eyebrow might make it impossible.) And some of the in-studio guests suffer the same embarrassment. I don’t know what the legendary FEMA stooge Michael Brown was thinking when he agreed to come on the show. He probably assumed that if he was a sport and he kept smiling and poking fun at himself, Colbert would ultimately make nice. Instead, he was tortured like a pig on a skewer.
Most openly fake talk show hosts ham up their routine or exaggerate their phoniness. (I’m thinking of Martin Short in his Jiminy Glick fat suit, or Jon Stewart’s sheepish admissions to the fakeness of his basic cable program.) And usually, if you’re going to satirize your political opponents—Colbert is obviously liberal, although he’s cagey about admitting it—you imitate their side to the hilt: everything you do on stage is a mockery.
But that’s not true with Colbert. On The Colbert Report, the host’s true passions meld seamlessly with his satire, as well as with the stuff that they just play for laughs (e.g., bears). When Colbert reads passages from his fake science fiction novel, Tek Jansen, you suspect that if he had the time, this is actually the kind of stuff he would write. When he cracked a joke recently about Dungeons and Dragons, he wasn’t a Saturday Night Live cast-member making fun: he’s a geek himself, and he knew exactly what he was talking about. For your average television show host, mixing the real and the phony would be extremely confusing. If nothing else, it would cause persona whiplash for the performer. Yet Colbert makes it look easy.
This is even more telling when he talks about religion. Right now, you can’t portray a right wing pundit and not deal with faith, but there’s a difference with Colbert: he’s a practicing Catholic, and although he’ll tell jokes and make criticisms, he takes his faith seriously. As he recently told Time Out New York, “I love my Church, and I'm a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout. I was raised to believe that you could question the Church and still be a Catholic. What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That's totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ. His kingdom is not of this earth.”
His understanding of religion informs the thoughtful, intriguing interviews he’s had with Brett O'Donnell (the debate coach at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University), Bruce Feiler (author of Walking the Bible), and most recently Madeleine Albright, who swung by to promote The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. It was the secret behind his “This Week in God” segment on The Daily Show, which has faltered in his absence. Because he discusses faith from an intellectual place, and not a dogmatic one—and because it reads, initially, as satire—he “gets away with it” with an audience that might normally be turned off by someone who can rattle off a Hail Mary at lightning speed. But more importantly, it gives us a clue to his beliefs that we don’t get when he’s talking politics. His hyper-patriotic shtick still reads as pure parody, but when you clue in to his religious convictions, you start to see the passion that drives his humor.
But it also gets us closer to the problem with The Colbert Report, and Colbert’s whole schtick: whose side is he really on? A comedian doesn’t have to take sides to be funny. But week after week, we know where Jon Stewart, to take an obvious example, stands; he openly gives away the frustrations and anti-Bush sympathies behind his satire. In Colbert’s case, it’s not obvious. The only clear lesson we can take from his show is that we should never trust the people who lie to us on TV. So, why have his fans have fallen in love with this liar, on this TV show? When he hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner, was he really “speaking truthiness to power”—was he trying to score points against Bush, as so many of us hoped—or was he just doing a routine?
We may never see the “real” Colbert—and yet, surprisingly, we don’t care. After all, we can count on him to act like himself, whoever he “really” is: he’ll always make the deadpan jokes, and raise that one eyebrow. Like a snarky Mr. Rogers, we can count on him to be him. After all, that’s just the way he is.
By: Chris Dahlen
Published on: 2006-06-14