Is it Stupid to Study Colbert?

Stephen Colbert just can't seem to stop causing trouble. First, he stood not 20 feet from President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner and tore down the unpopular president with a mock-laudatory speech that went viral overnight. Then, he ceased merely reporting on the ripples in the pond and started jumping in to make his own ripples when he tried to run for president in South Carolina in 2008, sponsored by Doritos, and later testified before Congress on immigration (2010). Shortly after Glenn Beck drew a modest crowd to the National Mall, he and Jon Stewart drew a much bigger crowd to the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in advance of the 2010 mid-term elections. More recently, he took the unprecedented step of founding his own Political Action Committee (2011), and then undertook a nearly successful effort to use some of the $1.3 million it raised to sponsor the Republican primary in South Carolina in 2012.

Along the way, as if that weren't enough, he has coaxed fans to alter Wikipedia entries, tweet incessant non-facts about Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, and vote for Colbert to host the Swedish Twitter site. Each of these "stunts" has led to media criticism that he has pushed his satire too far, and into places where it doesn't belong.

Again and again, Colbert has been called out for not staying within the bounds of his role as a comedian and entertainer. But now, it seems, he's really overstepped. He's become the subject of study at our nation's universities with books and articles and classes dedicated to him. This guy just can't be stopped!

Just look at all of these Colbert books:


If you were watching trending articles on Tuesday, July 10, 2012, you would have read that there is an academic "cult of Colbert." It started with Paul Farhi's piece for the Washington Post, "Truthinessology: The Stephen Colbert effect becomes an obsession in academia," which opens,

Nation, our so-called universities are in big trouble, and not just because attending one of them leaves you with more debt than the Greek government. No, we're talking about something even more unsettling: the academic world's obsession with Stephen Colbert.

Farhi's piece was quickly followed by John Hudson writing "You Don't Need a College Degree to Understand Stephen Colbert" for The Atlantic Wire. Hudson suggests that academic attention to Colbert is an example of a "higher education bubble" and he claims that analyzing Colbert just ruins the joke. He also cites a study by the Pew Research Center that indicates that only 39 percent of Colbert's viewers have college degrees. His point? You don't need a college degree to understand Colbert. But he missed a key part of the Colbert audience statistics: 43 percent of his viewers are 18-29. Many of them don't have their college degrees yet.

Bundled together, the two pieces suggest that Colbert gets too much attention in our universities and that the attention he gets is wholly underserved. As a professor who has a new book on Colbert, and a student who has recently founded the super PAC Penn Staters for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which is currently at work on a big Colbert-inspired project, we felt we had to weigh in on the debate.

So what is all the fuss over studying Colbert on our campuses?

First of all, holy overreaction, Batman! We have to take issue with the very idea that there is a "cult of Colbert" on college campuses. There are fewer than 10 academic books that focus on Colbert and very few courses are wholly dedicated to him. If a couple of books and seminars constitute academia's "obsession" with Stephen Colbert, what do we make of hundreds of articles and hours of prime time news coverage? Colbert can hardly take a step without making Fox News bristle, MSNBC giggle, and Rolling Stone write up an interview. (We won't point out the irony of the fact that the pieces that inspired this blog come themselves from news venues that arguably should be covering more "serious" issues.)

But the larger question -- and one that is potentially a lot more interesting to consider -- is whether Colbert is just an entertainer who riffs off of the inane things that take place in politics and on the news or whether he is doing something a lot more complicated and a lot more important. If you think that Colbert is just a guy doing a shtick on Comedy Central as a bloviating pundit, then it makes sense to question why he would be the subject of study at our universities. But if you think that Colbert is more than just a really funny guy, if you think that he may be playing a role in U.S. society that will have a major historical impact, then there is good reason to study him.

Academic attention to Colbert, in general, stems from the idea that what he is doing is politically insightful, socially relevant, and artistically complex.

You don't just study Colbert to help his fans "get" his show. You study his work to understand the role it has played in a unique historical moment, one that has witnessed the rise of corporate influence over politics, the atmosphere of post-9/11 fear-mongering, and a new era in news media where spectacle and sensationalism often overshadow reporting of accurate and appropriate information.

The subjects of Colbert's satire cover the range of pressing social issues facing us today. And his distinctive satirical style teaches viewers that logic, reason, and facts have been increasingly replaced by punditry, hubris, and false arguments. Moreover, he has redefined the parameters of what it means to be a public intellectual and a socially invested entertainer. The point is Colbert is much more than a media phenomenon, a hilarious entertainer, and a charismatic iconoclast. Do you need to study Colbert to "get" him? Probably not. But if you are interested in diving more deeply into his satire and its social impact or if you are curious about how his comedy reflects contemporary issues facing our nation, it might not be so stupid to study him after all.

But, hey, we aren't saying that you need to study Colbert any more than we are saying that you need to pay attention to professors who teach and write about him. The choice is entirely up to you. You can choose to take that elective on bowling, or the philosophy of Ayn Rand, or you can take a course that studies Colbert. That is, if you are lucky enough to have one on your campus. And, if you aren't in college, there is always night school. Class starts at 11:30 pm on Comedy Central.