Stephen Colbert has said that when he takes over for David Letterman on The Late Show he’ll be saying goodbye to his “Stephen Colbert” character, the right-wing blowhard intended as a parody of cable-news talking heads—particularly those of the conservative persuasion. The character will be missed, but it’s also a good time to say goodbye; the “Stephen Colbert” of The Colbert Report narrowly avoided outliving his usefulness as a comic device.
Which isn’t to say that cable news isn’t as absurd, now, as it was in 2005, when The Colbert Report launched. But it’s come to defy parody. At the moment Colbert’s show debuted, conservative media was in retreat as then-President George W. Bush’s popularity collapsed post-Katrina. The degree to which Fox News hosts were on the defensive during Bush’s second term made it the perfect moment to satirize their vanities and excesses. Colbert’s emphasis on “truthiness” implied that there was a concrete truth, one that ran directly counter to what conservative pundits were putting forth.
The (somewhat) bad news for Colbert was Barack Obama’s reelection. Obama is now at the point in his presidency that Bush was when Colbert rose to super-fame, and it’s not conservative media that’s against the ropes: It’s liberal MSNBC. And if the joke of Colbert’s character was his bluster in the face of the facts, the current landscape has him doubly vexed. Not merely have, in triumph, conservative talk-show stars wildly outpaced the capacity for satire—Megyn Kelly’s confidence that her audience would follow along as she declared Santa Claus was white last year is a benign example—but the audience can’t be counted on to assume there’s an objective truth out there at all.
“Truthiness” is funny when it can be presumed there’s an actual truth that one side is seeking to obfuscate. When both conservatives and liberals seem lost in the woods, the joke is a bit muddled. The core audience for the “Colbert” character had been liberals looking to laugh at a disempowered GOP operative endlessly spinning. These days, though, many conservative talking points are less spin on unfortunate events than capitalizing on resurgent popularity. And conservative or liberal, a confident victor just isn’t as funny as a loser trying to redefine the terms of “winning.”
Colbert’s done admirably well in keeping up with changing trends in the political and media landscape. But if things keep going how they’ve gone for the next couple of years, we likely won’t miss the character as much as we thought we might. The parts of conservative media that Colbert satirized—the perpetual attempts to frame every issue as political in a manner that flatters the GOP viewpoint—have been mainstreamed. So too has outlandish freedom with language and wildly provocative claims.
When you’ve got Fox News medical experts calling the First Lady fat on TV in real life, how can a satirist raise the stakes?