Mourning Their Idiot: Liberals Are Seriously Exaggerating the Loss of Colbert 'The Character'

One of the tender mercies of Stephen Colbert's ascension to the "Late Show" set at CBS is his shedding of the faux-conservative "high-status idiot" character. To conservatives, this "Colbert" has never seemed authentic or sustained cleverness -- how many times can you say you don't read or even like books? It mostly marks the deep ruts of liberal arrogance in their own mental superiority. Colbert has perpetually had trouble staying inside this character, always winking at and mocking it more than inhabiting it.

To liberals, abandoning this thin charade is far too much sincerity for an ironic age. They love their idiot conservative, and aren't dealing well with its departure. Hendrik Hertzberg at The New Yorker, a former Carter speechwriter and Newsweek reporter, is putting on a black armband in mourning. He sincerely believes "The Character" is a "miraculous and unparalleled intellectual and political achievement." Break out the smelling salts:

For eight years—for every minute of every half-hour of every edition of “The Colbert Report”—“Stephen Colbert” has been the exuberantly prim, indefatigably dim, supremely confident faux-conservative pundit who, brandishing a rippling, man-size American flag, has swooped thrillingly down at us four nights a week. Soon he will be gone. And we, his fans, will be bereft, deprived of the consolations he offers us for, among other afflictions, the existence of Fox News....

If Colbert’s interviews—meta-interviews, really—tend to be a little edgier, a little more unpredictable, than either Stewart’s or Letterman’s, one can’t help assuming that it’s because they are conducted by The Character, not the everyday husband and father. What will happen when the interviewer is Stephen Colbert, not “Stephen Colbert”? If an E! Online compilation of Colbert-as-Colbert is any guide, he’ll be charming, intelligent, and amusing. But the hint of lethality, if not altogether gone, is likely to be attenuated. The Character hasn’t had to worry about being likeable, any more than Elmer Fudd did. He’s been free to go places that an actual person can’t. The Character’s very one-dimensionality has given his interviews an interestingly three-dimensional quality....

Stewart will now have to soldier on alone. The immediate loss is for liberals, for whom “Stephen Colbert” has played a unique role as a fifth column. The Character has been a miraculous and unparalleled intellectual and political achievement, sustained for a very long time at a very high level. But if the intelligence, discipline, and hard work that Colbert invested in The Character can be brought to bear on revitalizing the variety show, then the polity’s loss may turn out to be the culture’s gain. If Colbert can truly reinvent the genre, if he has the freedom and the inclination to blow it up and build on the rubble, then perhaps The Character will not have died in vain. For the moment, though, excuse me while I put on my black armband.

New Yorker Hendrik Hertzberg Stephen Colbert
Tim Graham's picture