Friday, May 11, 2007

Lonesome Rhodes, Howard Beale, (The Life of) Brian, and Stephen Colbert

I have been watching Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report, like many people, from when it was simply a prank promo on The Daily Show. It has been one of those phenomenons that lit off on from the first episode with the headline coining of (the popular use of) the word "truthiness." It has been a tour de force, he has been passed around YouTube, discussed on the pundit shows he mocks, and thousands of people sit ready to mobilize at his very whim. His influence is such that people go on just to be mocked to show they have a sense of humor, in the hopes that they will be considered 'in' on the joke.

But the joke is what has gotten me thinking. The Colbert Report and the character he plays on that show is a send up of the cult of personality that builds up around the self important pundits that make up the bulk of the programing of the 'news' networks. When he did a bit on Wikipedia, inviting viewers to change the entry on elephants, the response was so overwhelming that Wikipedia had to change how entries where done and he mobilized viewers to have a bridge named after him (he was later disqualified because he didn't meet a primary condition, he was still alive).

And this, I imagine, is a bit of problem for him. He has stated in interviews that he is troubled that people might not be able to separate the character of Stephen Colbert from the performer Stephen Colbert. It is arguable that a larger cult has built around Colbert than around the personalities that he is parodying.

There are a trilogy of films about the rise of media sensations, probably the most notable of these being the 1976 Sidney Lumet movie Network. In it a frustrated and suicidal anchor, Howard Beale, tells people he will kill himself on his next broadcast. In his tyraid he asks the people watching to go to their windows and scream at the top of their lungs, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore" (a moment referenced by Jon Stewart where he asks his viewers jokingly to go to their windows and scream, "Be reasonable!").

A cult builds around the ravings of Beale and the network begins a cynical exploitation of his popularity. It is a theme repeated from the 1957 Elia Kazan movie, A Face in the Crowd where a down-home folky drifter Lonesome Rhodes(a very un-Mayberry Andy Griffith) has a cult built up around his 'straight talk' and simple wisdom. Like in Network his popularity is cynically exploited, with Rhodes buying in and slowly corrupting himself. (it is the source of the cliche of someone switching on the feed during a public figures candid moment, a moment that has become prophetic in todays world of inexpensive camcorders and YouTube, such as the "macaca" incident.)

In both these films, and in Spike Lee's tribute/update Bamboozled, the cult of personality that surrounds the men overwhelms and ultimately destroys them. There is a scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian where the mob has mistaken Brian for the messiah and wait outside his bedroom. He addresses them, telling them that they are individuals, to which they chant back, "We are individuals!"

I begin to wonder if this is the trap that Stephen Colbert is heading for. I wonder if we might become so enraptured in the joke that we forget the joke itself. If the character of Stephen Colbert might eclipse the man, Stephen Colbert. He's not in danger of believing his ability as a king maker, like Lonesome Rhodes, I don't think. Nor having his anger and exploitation eat him from the inside like Beale (that fate, it seemed, was saved for Dave Chappele). But he seems already shin deep in the quicksand of Brian. In an attempt to ridicule the rhetorical messiahs he is in danger of becoming one. He has a keen sense of irony, an awareness and ability to build character. From interviews there is a sense that he understands the needle he threads with his egotistical, perhaps maniacal alter ego.

But do we? I don't want to be in that position of underestimating the public at large, that sort of self satisfied "Why's everyone stupid but me?" kind of notion. But I can't help but think that we have a tendency to martyr the prophets, and while I think he might be able to appreciate the irony of it all, I'd hate to see his end accompanied by the cheerful whistle of Eric Idle while he dies for our foibles.


  1. You make a good argument, and I have to wonder what sort of toll this character takes on him over time as well. I think his show has been a little uneven of late--some of the edge has disappeared, and what was once the strongest part of his show, the interview, seems to be flagging as guests (especially the more savvy ones, like Jane Fonda) learn how to come at his character and remove his power. It has to get harder and harder to pull it off night after night.

    If I had some career advice for Colbert, it would be to do like the actual pundits do and find someone to fill in for him every now and again. Go back to simply writing the show and let someone else have the spotlight for a week--find a comic who can do an Oliver North schtick. Rob Riggle might be able to pull it off effectively. But do something that allows him to step away from the character a bit.

    As to the problem you mention, Colbert did it to himself a bit with that White House Correspondents Dinner performance, because for a lot of us in the online community, that was a truth to power moment directed not only at the political world, but at the DC media corps as well, and he blurred the lines between entertainment and activism when he did that. So more power to him, but I don't want to see him eaten alive by it either.

  2. The Press Corps Dinner was definetly a turning point in much the same way (and to a greater extent) as Stewart on Crossfire. There was a change in the way that we looked at them both after those moments. In a way it is the Beale/Rhodes moments-they went from being people that entertained us to people we hoped would lead us, in a strange way.

    I say strange because not everyone, myself included, want the to have a role other than social critic, but the depth of the cut we want them to make has changed. Certainly there is the "Stewart/Colbert '08" stickers, but I honestly think that is a reflection of that desire more than it is a real wish for them to run. But it's hard to live up to those kind of moments. Especially when all you wanted to be was a comedian.

    But it's all that Lenny Bruce wanted as well. I just hope it ends better for them.