Winter 2010

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Northwestern is the quarterly alumni magazine for Northwestern University.
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Stephen Colbert testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing in character in September, speaking on the topic of working in the fields on U.S. farms. Photo © Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Corbis

Is It All a Joke?

If it’s all a joke, not everyone gets it.

A 2009 Ohio State University study reported liberals and conservatives both find Stephen Colbert equally funny, but a majority of conservatives actually believed Colbert “only pretends to be joking” and “genuinely meant what he said.”

And it doesn’t take a study to know that liberals don’t think he’s joking either — they just think he’s on their side.

Colbert and Daily Show host Jon Stewart consistently say their main goal is to be funny, that they’re not political. “But we’re talking about the news,” Colbert tells Northwestern magazine, “so if that’s the meat that you’re putting into the sausage grinder, you’ll get something out the end that has all that flavor of politics or social commentary about society or culture, that sort of thing.

“I’m just trying to make it funny in a way that seems funny to us. And if people say that it has some sort of effect on them, or influence in some way, that’s for them to say. But it’s certainly not my intention.”

Still, Colbert’s Northwestern acting professor Ann Woodworth says his current work reminds her of George Bernard Shaw. “That was Shaw’s perspective on the drama: to get people to think about things, to address the need for social change or political change by getting them to laugh, by entertaining them.” Then, she explains, Shaw “could slip in the message. I think that’s exactly what Stephen does.”

A few of Colbert’s recent activities look suspiciously political:

Colbert tried to run in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in his native state of South Carolina. He couldn’t get on the ballot, but he did get on Meet the Press, where he told host Tim Russert, “I am far realer than Sam Brownback.”

In September Colbert testified in Congress on behalf of migrant farm workers, after taking up the United Farm Workers of America on its “Take Our Jobs” campaign and spending a day on an upstate New York farm crating corn and picking beans.

“After working with these men and women … I have to say, and I do mean this sincerely: Please don’t make me do this again. It is really, really hard,” Colbert told a packed hearing room.

Colbert and the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart hosted competing political rallies in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 30, inspired by Glenn Beck’s August “Restoring Honor” gathering on the National Mall. Stewart announced his “Rally to Restore Sanity” on his Sept. 16 show with the message, “Take it down a notch for America.” Minutes later on the Report, Colbert declared, “I am sorry, Jon Stewart, I will not take it down a notch. I will notch it up a skosh,” and trumpeted his rally, “March to Keep Fear Alive.” An estimated 215,000 people attended the combined “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” — C.P.