One of the side questions to come out of the speculation that Stephen Colbert may be CBS’s top choice to replace David Letterman is: But who will parody Bill O’Reilly then? We have our answer: Bill O’Reilly will.
Papa Bear, whose show is a not-so-secret inspiration for The Colbert Report, outdid himself last night with a segment that blamed Colbert for, more or less, the downfall of civilized society. He began just where you’d expect, with the NCAA basketball championships. Specifically, with the destruction that broke out amid celebrations at the University of Connecticut after its men’s team won March Madness. The hooliganism (mirrored at the losing University of Kentucky) was, O’Reilly said, the result of a culture of “entitlement” and “grievance” amid a media culture that paints the United States as an unfair oppressor of the poor, women, and minorities.
You got it: students in Connecticut were wrecking the town out of the grievance and resentment that arises from winning a basketball championship.
Anyhoo, from there, O’Reilly goes on a bit of ideological island-hopping: the rioting comes from resentment, the resentment comes from a perception that the system is rigged, the perception that the system is rigged comes from “myths” in the progressive media, and “one of the biggest mouthpieces for the progressive movement is Stephen Colbert.” (Why stop there? Stephen Colbert is from South Carolina. Why do you want to make Connecticut college students riot, South Carolina?)
The rest of O’Reilly’s segment counterpunches Colbert for a bit Colbert recently did sending up O’Reilly for saying that the concept of equality is “an opium-laced dream.” You can debate the merits of both arguments, or of O’Reilly’s self-defense that he believes deeply in “fighting for equality” but not the government “imposition” of equality.
But the question I was left with here is: if O’Reilly believes Colbert is so dangerous, why is he trying to get Colbert hired as the host of CBS’s Late Show?
Because make no mistake, however much Colbert wants Letterman’s job and however much CBS wants him, making Colbert the subject of another public flame war only raises his profile higher than it already is. Is O’Reilly maybe trying to undermine Colbert, sending the signal that CBS will alienate conservative viewers if it hires Colbert? If so, I doubt that would work. Many conservatives have had it in for Letterman for years, and CBS gladly renewed him as long as he wanted to keep the job.
What’s more, this comes right after the “#CancelColbert” furor in which Twitter activists charged that a Colbert Report tweet–and/or the segment it was taken out of context from–was racist against Asian Americans. If O’Reilly wants to damage Colbert’s prospects, all he’s really doing is cementing a public perception of Colbert as a target of both the humorless right and the humorless left. (That perception may not be accurate, and I don’t doubt Colbert’s politics are to the left, but perception matters to a big broadcast network.)
In the end, it all just bolsters Colbert’s relevance and thus his market value. It also underscores why, as I wrote last week, I’ll be sad if he ends up making the leap and leaving the Colbert Report and his character. Colbert is staggeringly talented, and I have no doubt that if he wants to become an 11:35 talk show host, he can do a great job of it. But what he’s done over nine years at Comedy Central is to create something that’s more powerful than anything anyone is doing on broadcast late night–and probably more powerful than anything he can get away with at CBS. He’s created not just a show but performance art, a grand-scale work that goes far beyond a half-hour on cable every weeknight.
On The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert is a cultural force, someone the O’Reillys of the world can see as a genuine power, and threat. On CBS, I fear he’d only be–
Oh, I see now! Nicely played, Papa Bear.