Colbert Report Satirical Television Essay

Satire has the power to induce change by exaggerating issues within a historical context. If people see the satirical representation as being close enough to the reality of the situation, then this effect can be prove to be a catalyst for social and political change, at least in the ideologies of the readers of a satirical text. “Satire is a “mixed dish” that reflects any number of different balances of rhetorical argumentation and narrative storytelling” (Holbert et. al. 2013).

By combining this rhetorical argumentation and situating it within a larger narrative, satire has the capability of eaching large audience, and the fact that it is such a loaded term which derives its characteristics from many different fields makes it more targeted on individuals with a higher education. A classic example of satire is Jonathan Swift ‘s A Modest Proposal, which is a satirical essay in which the author proposes the Irish populace eat their own babies. The essay was published in the 1700’s and created a big reaction as the general population was appalled by the text.

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The essay is fully coherent with some grim argumentation and examples of how much better life could be if this proposal is o be adopted. Even though the reaction incited by the essay was a negative one, it was at least big enough to raise better awareness of the social problems relating to poverty in Ireland at the time. While it is generally accepted that the majority of people are more educated in contemporary times than 300 years ago, readers of satirical text must first understand that satire is metaphorical rather than literal at its core.

This paper will look at The Colbert Report (CR) in order to get a better understanding of the effects satire has on political discourse as well as how humour orks to attract audiences to what is essentially a modified version of a newscast. CR is a satirical news and political commentary television program that airs late nights on weekdays. The show features Stephen Colbert who plays a caricaturised version of political pundits from various news stations. The character bears the same name as the performer, which is some ways attempts to blur the lines between parody and reality.

The information presented and media snippets used are all real, and what gives the show its cunning twist is the way in which they are setup. By focusing on pecific words and images, the character is able to satirize issues and especially people in a comical way. While this paper will look at CR more specifically, many of the relevant literature on the subject of televised political satire applies to other shows of the same nature such as The Daily Show or the Canadian comedic commentary show This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

By analyzing the conventions of the satirical television news cast, this paper will attempt to show how political, gender and racial views are skewed in a way which hyperbolizes the issues at hand, but by doing so brings them to light. In a nation of increasing polarization a show such as The Colbert Report manages to break away from the norm and from traditional sitcom ideology, by relating to both sides of the spectrum. Firstly, there has to be an understanding of the audience of political satire.

Who the audience members are precedes viewing motivations as well as the way in which the information is decoded. It might seem obvious to assume that only audiences leanlng on tne lett 0T tne polltlcal spectrum would tune In to tne CR, out tne trutn Is more complex than that since audiences don’t have to perform preferred readings of uch texts and in a show such as the CR negotiated and oppositional readings work in a different dimension since so much of what is depicted on the show refers to conservative fgure heads within the political landscape of the United States.

Encoding takes place in two different dimensions. First it’s the building up of the news anchor (Colbert the character), and then the encoding of liberal schema through the clever editing and interweaving newscast snippets with the commentary provided by Colbert. Situating political satire within the context of comedy, one must understand why the depictions in CR are humorous. Hmielowski, Holbert and Lee write that “people want to laugh at the follies of politicians or opposing political parties.

Laughing at the mistakes of others allows individuals to feel more secure with their own beliefs and removes insecurities they may have about their own behaviors or preferred political group” (2011, p. 101). This is applicable to CR as as much of the humour is derived from the characters speech and actions. By becoming a caricature of conservative political commentators, the character of Colbert becomes an opposing figure to the audience.

The ridiculousness of what he says and does is nalogous to the errors committed by politically conservative fgures in all forms of media. The audience therefore becomes a united front against such a figure. The humour here is meant to reinforce the political beliefs of the viewers. The authors of the aforementioned article conclude that the audience is comprised of a mostly younger demographic, but assert that even if the majority of the people tuning in are young liberals, they are not exclusive within the audience demographic.

Middle aged and even older conservative viewers are present, and from the survey data it ecomes obvious how motivations for watching differ not only at the decoding level, but also the fact that some individuals are oblivious to the satire part of such shows. Even though these viewers are in the minority, they are not part of the target market. To fully comprehend a show like the CR it is integral to have an understanding of satire, which goes beyond the audio-visual elements of the television medium itself.

This effect can also be situated within the perception of persuasive intent due to the fact that when individuals are aware of a message’s persuasive intent they can hoose to avoid or even counter argue the message (Holbert et. al. 2013). Character parody is essential to satire in the audio-visual medium of television. Having a good screen presence and delivery of script if integral to creating a seemingly natural, believable text in this medium; this is similar to the nature of sit- coms.

The situations set up by writers in sit coms are usually representative of political discourse within the United States. The success of a show such as CR is enabled by the Juxtaposition of liberal ideals through representations of conservative tropes. And the host takes full advantage of this. Through the commentary provided by the character, context emerges out of need for entertainment, rather than a naturally evolving narrative, and audiences recognize meta-narratives of the show through recurring gags and the self-referencing.

Recurring bits (such as Ham Rove, The Colbert Super Pac) create a parody of a flawed political system, but these flaws are so much more Jarring in the context of the show itself, since they happen again and again and serve to not only reinforce the need for change in the political system out also to deconstruct plans, values ana Ideals 0T tne conservative estaDllsnment In rder to provide some kind of educational outcome. Yes it is biased but still gives the audience a better understanding of current events in the political environment within the country.

Satire is inherently political, and therefore has an obvious bias, even though it is sometimes not clear towards which side it leans. Baumgartner and Morris write that “humor contained in a message will lead subjects to process the message in the peripheral route and not devote their resources to cognitive processing. In other words, the “true message” that the satiric humorist is attempting o convey may not be the one that audiences are processing” (2008, p. 626).

One integral question that needs some kind of explanation is in regards to whether shows like The Colbert Report are predominantly a source of information or a source of entertainment. Clearly such a television program is found on cable networks because it produces some kind of financial gain. The capitalist forms of production after all dictate whether a show will last or not. By using surveys and a uses and gratification framework for understanding audience motivations for tuning in, Young found that the primary reasons for watching the show are humour and ecause it is seen as a source of information (2013, p. 65). More importantly the survey found that certain viewing motivations work in unison (learning and humour), while others are mutually exclusive such as humour and context. This evidences the educational potential of humour. By wrapping up important socio-political issues in an easy to digest package that provides humorous entertainment, programs like CR provide ease of access into complex issues which often divide the socio-political landscape in the United States. By satisfying multiple gratifications concurrently, the ybrid nature of political satire becomes obvious (Young, 2013).

This is so much more important in the context of new media, as the study also showed that the majority of participants had prior knowledge of the issues presented in the programmes. While looking at political satire it is much more relevant to undertake the framework of circular theories of communication such as uses and gratifications, rather than finite direct theories of communication such as the hypodermic needle, since consumers of political satire are often young educated individuals who use such programmes to upplement their already existing knowledge of political discourse in the United States.

Audiences of political satire therefore are empowered by the internet medium, as instantaneous communication and instant access to information enable viewers to become better informed on these issues, if such interest exists. Since CR plays 4 days it week it can be considered educational, at least in current events, but the real discourse becomes shaped outside of the medium of television blogs, message boards and other social media on the World Wide Web.

By using specific examples from CR, a better understanding of current political ssues emerges. One of the main political pundits Colbert parodies is that of conservative Fox News representative Bill O’Reilly. The parody is represented not only in the speech and demeanour of the character but more importantly rhetorical strategies employed by both personalities which are surprisingly similar, using anecdotes instead of facts, use of simplified language and appeal to emotion rather than reason. This makes the character seem that much more real.

Taken out of context, without an audience or laugh track, one might believe the character of colDert to De nls everyday persona. I ne Irony nere Is tnat tnls cnaracter Is not only real but duplicated on many of the political commentary segments seen on television (such as Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck). By fully immersing himself in the character, Colbert in fact provides a critique of the television medium itself, and of how easily information can be taken out of context and altered in way which reinforces dominant ideology within conservative groups.

By critiquing the role of punditry within contemporary newscast cycles, CR seeks to change the role television has in people’s lives as appealing to emotion has become a central part of contemporary TV ewscasts with news stories being ranked on importance based how big of an emotional impact it has on the audience. The intent here might be for people to ultimately move away from TV as a source of information and especially as a source of Journalistic integrity.

The emotional effect the medium of television on an audience skews the way Journalism is approached. Everything must be set up Just right when doing a television newscast, and Colbert knows this as well. From mise-en-scene to the anchor’s hair style, these elements which comprise the visual appeal of a rogramme, take precedence over Journalistic facts. It’s arguable that television is the worst place for Journalism to thrive, and this is exemplified in CR.

By adhering to the strict tenet of style over substance which many mainstream television programs abide by, CR attempts to deconstruct television newscasts to expose how far from traditional Journalism such programs are. Traditionally Journalism brings to light social injustices. But television Journalism has a much less adversarial attitude towards those in positions of power. Television Journalism more often than not erves the needs of the corporations and governments who support them.

This reinforces the status quo, and rather than working to bring to light racial, social and political inequalities, TV newscasts seek to supress them. But TV programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are working to close the gap even more between television and the internet. By featuring guests non- mainstream guests such as musicians, writers and artists, CR pushes the boundaries of the medium. By providing a platform for social activism within this medium, it provides television audiences with an alternative political discourse.

Even though such discourse flows freely on the realm of new media, and alternative print and video, a show like CR provides an entry for such discussion on mainstream media. The segmentation of the show into five to eight minute segments, gives it ample opportunity to transcend the medium of television and indeed it has, as CR has a big following on the internet. Arguably this “internet audience” is now the biggest part of CR, as for the past couple of years all episodes have been available on the official website, and Stephen Colbert uses social media networks extensively.

The character of Stephen Colbert is no longer bounded by a 22 minute time frame on late night television. This transcendence is typical of ICT’s and the internet’s potential to assimilate elements of traditional media. Information that would have faded away from the public sphere is now available indefinitely on the internet. CR therefore is not Just late night television program anymore, but has turned into a community of like minded individuals on the internet, and to some extent they can be considered social activists, regardless of whether or not social change is their goal.

Today udiences are “active users for whom the content is an unfinished good, more a resource to De worked wlt n tnan a product slmply to De consumed . any numDeroT individuals, organizations, and institutions can reappropriate that content: extract it from its original context, insert it into new discursive forms, and in so doing, reshape it into resource in pursuit of a myriad of ends” (Baym and Shah, 2011). Reappropriation of content is a key element of the internet’s potential for facilitating social and political change and more importantly garnering discussion outside of the boundaries of mainstream media.

This facilitation of discussion on the program itself proves the potential of televised satirical programming to change the political environment not Just within the United States but around the world. The last paragraph has to be dedicated to an analysis of the cultural significance of the Stephen Colbert character. From his humble beginnings as a correspondent for The Daily Show, to his current position of master satirist, Stephen Colbert has become somewhat of a cultural icon. With his self-proclaimed “Colbert Nation” community of fans, Stephen Colbert has taken the fight from the medium to the asses.

Throughout his career on the show, Colbert has taken on various issues and brought them to the fore both on television and more importantly outside of it. By addressing these issues, he is taking on social issues like gender and race differently from a sit com. The approach here is more radical. The most recent example is the Colbert Super PAC, which Stephen Colbert set up during the campaigning of the 2012 US election. This was a legitimate campaign funding initiative, similar to other such PACs which seek to raise money for mostly political campaigning.

The issues raised ere were about the use of money in politics, which is a constant issue of debate in American politics. The question was framed of whether or not such initiatives are ethical, since it means that the politicians with the most financial support get the most media exposure (while the opposition is discredited through the same means). Considering television mass appeal and reception, such a question becomes very valid taking into account many voters whom are uneducated on the political environment ( many voters base their beliefs purely on what they see on TV).

By the nd the Super PAC was a success both financially and in terms of raising awareness. Such stories about campaign financing usually receive little attention and fade from the television sphere at a quick pace. But the Colbert initiative lasted for close to a year, and with events unfolding in what can only be described as a bizarre, as we see Colbert working the legal system and using gaps in regulations to perform undoubtedly unethical decisions (such as deciding to run for office while in control of the PAC, which is essentially illegal).

This Super PAC endeavour was effective in ringing to light the messiness of campaign regulations and the point was passed along that money is one of the biggest determinants in which individuals have a role in ruling the country. It almost doesn’t matter anymore whether it was Colbert the character, or Colbert the performer who was the significant force behind such activism.

And really it seems at this point that the two are indistinguishable, each being a major part of the others life as the character is no longer confined to a talking head on late night television, but making appearances at the White House, political rallies and galas. This paper has looked at satirical television programming’s potential to identify social inequalities as related to current events, and especially the current political setting In tne unltea s s I ne slmllarltles witn sit coms make tnls genre Teel Ilke such a show belongs on the television medium.

The differences, (cutting wit) turn the show informational although undoubtedly bias. But the bias is skewed in its representation. Satire in a visual medium behaves differently as it must be more/less overt than in written form. Television changed political discourse especially in the US, nd social media is changing it again, as gaffes in the traditional medium no longer follow a predictable cycle of excitement – decay – fade from memory, and are forever preserved on the internet.

But Colbert has taken it outside the realm of media, and has become a warrior in real life through his activism towards getting money out of politics, and arguing for limits of political donations (lobbyists) which has been a topic of great interest to American politics for nearly a decade. By relating news stories, it becomes both informational and entertaining, but how can audiences be ntertained by some of these stories, especially when they are represented in such a exaggerated manner? References Baym, 6. na sn ‘IRCULAIING SIRUC5C5LE: Ine on-llne now 0T environmental advocacy clips from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Information, Communication & Society, 14 (7), pp. 1017–1038. Day, A. and Thompson, E. 2012. Live from New York, it’s the fake news! Saturday Night Live and the (non) politics of parody. Popular Communication, 10 (1-2), pp. 170–182. Gray, J. and Lotz, A. 2012. Television studies. Cambridge, I-JK: Polity. Hmielowski, J. , Holbert, R. and Lee, J. 2011. Predicting the consumption of political TV satire: Affinity for political humor, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report.

Communication Monographs, 78 (1), pp. 96–114. Holbert, R. , Tchernev, J. , Walther, W. , Esralew, S. and Benski, K. 2013. Young Voter Perceptions of Political Satire as Persuasion: A Focus on Perceived Influence, Persuasive Intent, and Message Strength. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 57 (2), pp. 170–186. Young, D. 2013. Laughter, Learning, or Enlightenment? Viewing and Avoidance Motivations Behind The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 57 (2), pp. 153–169.


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