Back in college I distinctly remember learning about Washington Irving, one of America's first great original authors, in my introduction to American Literature class. Just as America struggled to establish itself on the political world stage, it also struggled to gain artistic respect from continental Europe. In the early years, its music, visual art, and literature were all a bit too pedestrian for the high-minded tastes of the European establishment. For example, name the earliest world renowned American music composer you can think of. If you can think of someone before Charles Ives, who was born in 1874, I think you would be stretching.*
In the eyes of Europe, the entirety of the United States was some kind of unregulated backwoods frontier. I'm pretty sure even the lowliest London peasant thought an American aristocrat was an unkempt and uneducated ruffian. Thus it was a big deal when someone like Washington Irving came along in the early 1800's and gained success and acclaim in both the former colonies and the motherland.
What stuck out to me most in my class' section on Irving is that some of his most popular works are all but unreadable to us today. Irving was a master of satire and his first major work A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker was a funny and scathing critique (or should I say lampooning) of local New York history and politics. The only problem is all of the references Irving makes are so obscure and linked to the time and place in which he lived, hardly any of us would find it funny today. In essence, we would have to immerse ourselves in the minutiae of 18th century colonial history to even understand his work, let alone be able to laugh at it.
That a great work of art can become not only forgotten but also incomprehensible to subsequent generations has stuck with me throughout the years. Sure, as far as Washington Irving goes we have "The Legend of Sleep Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" but what if Irving's greatest works are lost on us simply because we don't know what he was talking about or what he was referencing to? And for that matter, assuming a privileged few could educate themselves on everything he references who else would they even be able to share a laugh with about it?
This is all very sad, but is it not a necessity for an art form such as satire, which is a most in-the-moment medium of humor? Although there is a more general kind of satire, which I will touch on later, perhaps its most potent form comes when an audience and an artist (be they a writer or a performer) share a specific cultural moment of absurdity or injustice and that artist blows up that moment with humor, causing us to simultaneously laugh and reflect. Sometimes satire even has the ability to bring the absurdities and injustices—and those who perpetrated them—to account. I would argue this is when satire is actually working.
In reflecting on the forgotten work of Washington Irving I have in turn begun to fear for the longevity of the greatest satirist of our times. Our minds immediately turn to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report (there are of course many many others) whose humor almost entirely depends on the moment. Their most scathing monologues are elaborate pastiches of news clips, political sound bytes, and punnery, all of which are undergirded by half ironic half sincere commentary that parodies the tone and style of news pundits (although some people think they have lost their biting edge).
But here's the thing: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are entirely disposable as forms of entertainment. Currently, I don't subscribe to cable TV but I can watch both shows as an Amazon Prime subscriber. The only problem in viewing the shows this way is there is a one week lag in the episodes. Often, I find myself not wanting to watch them because they would not be commenting enough on NOW: "tonight's episode was SO last week". On one hand this is entirely where the power of these shows lie (capturing the NOW) but on the other hand this is exactly why these shows and the humorists who bring them to us will be forgotten in the future (It's too hard to understand THEN when we are living in our own self-centered NOW).
And thus we should all be very worried, as this past year marks the end of a noteworthy decade and a half in which the two greatest satirists of our times are "retiring". (Actually, Colbert is more of the pure satirist, at least in artistic form, while Stewart is more of an ironic social/political commentator, but let's not quibble.) Colbert left the Report in December 2014 and Stewart will wrap up his stint on The Daily Show in August 2015. Stewart managed to somehow unite a younger generation utterly skeptical of the news cycle by simultaneously caring about and mocking the days events. Colbert gloriously emerged from the shadows of Stewart and showed he knew how to play the zeitgeist better than anybody. It remains to be seen exactly what Stewart will do next, though family time and more focus on doing films seems likely, fans of satire are now in a liminal season where we what for Stephen Colbert to become...well, a late night talk show host. It sounds pathetic even saying it. Colbert will go from mocking the conventions of typical interviews with some of the worlds greatest thinkers to pretending he cares about Scarlett Johansson's latest film. That is, from swimming with sharks to splashing around in the kiddie pool.
Or will he?
It remains to be seen what Colbert will do once behind David Letterman's desk (who everyone acknowledges is a legend and who himself revolutionized the form of late night television) and one might be tempted to think the conventions of the talk show form are too set in stone for him to be able to do anything fresh with it. It would also appear the beloved "Stephen Colbert" character will disappear from sight and eventually recede into our collected memories. In other words, I am tempted to agree with this AVClub article which posits that in signing on to his new job Stephen Colbert is "succeeding downward." Put one more way, the real tragedy for viewers is it would seem they hired Stephen Colbertt to take Letterman's position and not "Stephen Colbare". We all love the real Colbert, but will he be able to be as funny without hiding behind the facade of the blowhard Colbert?
I believe we have seen glimmers of hope in recent months however of what Colbert is capable of, reminders that Colbert the man is a near unparalleled comic talent. From his "Colbeard" video to his parody of Donald Trump's campaign announcement Colbert has let us into the type of humor we can expect from him once he takes over Late Show. And yet even these incredibly funny short bursts of creativity from Colbert reveal just how contextual his type of art is, how fleeting is the nature of satire.
Just take a look at this Wikipedia article on Colbert's "cultural impact" to survey all of the reality bending pranks he has played over the years, each of them entirely contextual, perhaps none more than this one, which was perpetrated in 2006 right in front of the Commander in Chief himself:
Even now my heart rate goes up and my hands get clammy just watching him mock George W. Bush so openly, watching him irreverently dismantle his policies and staged photo opportunities, hearing the nervous crowd's unsure smattering of laughter. It is a dangerous high wire act for sure, but to even understand the speech doesn't it increasingly depend on knowing what all his references refer to? It requires, among other things, understanding the bitter bitter irony of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech (more and more bitter as the years go on), his wiretapping practices and torture practices, the manipulation of the press, the backgrounds of the different pundits, journalists, generals, supreme court justices, and other government officials in attendance, the CIA/Spy backgrounds of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, the enduring presence of Helen Thomas in the White House press room, and most of all the utter complexities of why we invaded Iraq. In other words, his speech has many layers to it and one will best understand each of his critiques of the Bush administration simply by having lived through it all. And the case is the same if you happen to look through his show's best moments—that is to say, twenty years from now you would have to be a pretty well educated individual in the history of the early 21st century to get all these jokes.
I suppose many of Colbert's references are still applicable today, even in Obama's presidency, but I'm not so much worried about today's audiences. What I am beginning to see is Colbert's act depends utterly on the urgency of the moment, on the present day fears, concerns, and outrages of a people. For sure, people will always be disgruntled with their government and thus a good deal of Colbert's act may be found universally funny. Even so, it is much more likely Colbert's technique will be absorbed by and then live on in the next generation of satirists rather than his actual recorded or written material doing so (though I am sure brief sound bytes will always stick around). To put it in perspective, this is why it is so important that we have Mark Twain's political speeches and essays in print, many of them containing general enough points to still pack a punch today.
This same dependency on specific and ongoing cultural contexts plays out just as much on The Daily Show as well as shows as different in form as Mystery Science Theater 3000:
Certainly there is a more general, cultural kind of satire that captures the absurdities of society at large. This is why much of the comedy of Monty Python has endured for so long or why a satirical news show such as The Day Today which does not lampoon day to day events but instead broadcast news itself is just as powerful now as it was in the 1990's:
Sometimes there are satires that exist in middle ground, such as the work of Jonathan Swift (e.g., Gulliver's Travels), which contains many (now obscure) veiled and not so veiled references to British politics, but is also so undeniably brilliant and often universally applicable so as to still be relevant today. The Onion continually puts out both kinds of satire as well, with an overwhelming amount of examples on the spectrum from specific to general satire. Here's to hoping Colbert's work on the Report is of that quality, but I have my doubts about that, not because it lacks brilliance but simply because it is too specific. And maybe this is where incredible potential lies in his taking over Letterman's Late Show post. If Colbert can transcend or subvert the wearied late night talk show form to his advantage, he might be able to create a more general kind of satire capable of more cultural longevity than his time and context specific work on the Colbert Report.
Even with my hopes for his new job lot of my concern comes from my belief that the brilliant work he did on the Colbert Report will all too soon be forgotten, simply due to the limitations of satire as an enduring medium. Believe me, I would love to be proved wrong, but to prove my point part of me thinks I should put together a book club where we would read through Washington Irving's A History of New York in its entirety. Imagine the laughs we would have! I wonder who would even make it to the end.
To be clear, I am not so much worried that Stephen Colbert will be forgotten, although that is entirely possible. Instead, I worry a whole lot more that people will forget why Stephen Colbert was funny at all...
You can go here to review some of
the best moments of The Colbert Report.
*And if you think Stephen Foster was a world renowned during his life you'd be wrong.
Why It's OK When Satire Makes You Mad
Making a Case For Dark Comedy #2: Rev.
Jim Gaffigan and Physicality of Comedy
5 Things I'm Wondering About the New Steve Taylor Album Goliath