Penthouse Retrospective

by Paul Provenza Originally Published: june, 2010

With All Disrespect | 10 Years Ago This Month

I can understand getting hijacked by a particular take, because on The Colbert Report we’re constantly going, “Do we really want to say that, or are we just parodying what other people are saying?” We ask, “Is that really what the story is about?” all the time. I’m sure actual news [people] ask themselves that question all the time. But then there’s the hungry beast of the clock, which goes, “Come on, we know Blitzer’s going to be out there in The Situation Room in five minutes. What’s the story?”

And they go, “Well, this is just being reported.”

“Okay, let’s just go with that.” I’m as human as they are. But the real crime here is laziness. Lazy thought and willful ignorance. After the first time we ever did The Colbert Report, I said, “If this show works and goes on and on for years, it won’t matter who’s in office, what the political landscape is, or what the story of the day is, because what we’re talking about is willful ignorance of facts over what feels like news to you, what feels like the story, what feels like the truth.” I said, “That will never go away.”

One of the great sins in modern news is that the facts really don’t matter. Those nighttime shows are the most popular shows and they are all about feeling. That is not a sin specifically of the guys that I parody, that is a sin (and “sin” is a strong word, but I’m a Catholic) of laziness and fear — laziness about getting a different take on a subject, and fear that you won’t serve the beast of the clock on the wall. In my opinion. I could be wrong — I’m a comedian.

On The Colbert Report, you’re actually satirizing a form and type of media personality more than satirizing newsmakers.

COLBERT: We do both. I may be stealing this definition of satire from somebody, but “satire is parody with a point.” Presently, I am parodying willful ignorance. But I have to say the medium is a lot of my message.

Do you meet people who don’t get it? Who don’t see your character as a character?

COLBERT: People who care to know me generally get it. I’m not saying people never get it wrong, but I myself have only encountered that once: When I was still at The Daily Show, I did a piece about how diverse the population of delegates was at the National Democratic Convention: African-Americans, Native Americans, Jews, environmentalists  — or “tree huggers,” as I’d call them — homosexual-rights lobbyists, union workers, “Ghandi lndians” — as I called them, as opposed to “Sitting Bull lndians” — that kind of thing. I got them all together on a panel and tried to get them to agree on things. Of course I picked very divisive topics, and it ended up being a cacophony that I just walked out of, like I couldn’t wait to get to the Republican Convention where they all spoke with one voice.

Then I went to do a piece at the Republican Convention. It had been kind of a dull night. Madison Square Garden was empty, but I’m sitting in the bleachers, thinking, How am I going to cut this together into something? and a guy comes over in one of those “here’s your cowboy hat for being at the convention” cowboy hats and he says, “I’m from the Bush headquarters in Dallas, and I gotta tell you, I love that piece you did on the Democrats and how many crazy different kinds of people they have! I mean, what are they thinkin’, man? They’re never going to get that coalition together.”

And I said, “Oh, that’s interesting. Um, you know, that was ironic. The whole point of it was that it’s a nice effort to try to get those kinds of people together. It was really kind of a celebration of what they were doing, and the idea that the Republicans are all one voice is a criticism of what is essentially the patriarchal power structure still propped up by the white, Christian, male leadership of the Republican Party.”

That was generally the idea of what I said to him, and he looks at me and goes, “Huh. Well … I’ll take your word for it, but it was funny as hell, man. We play it all the time.”

Then he just walked away, and I went, “Oh… okaaaay”

I can’t help wondering if that may happen more often than you’re aware.

COLBERT: I think maybe you’re right, too. I don’t put much stock in things like the Pew Research Center study that says young people get more of their news from me and Jon Stewart than any other place. However… Harvard did a study at the Kennedy School about Jon Stewart’s and my demographics. Basically, it said that traditional Democrats watch his show 46 percent to my 29 percent, something like that, and traditional Republicans watch me 49 percent to his 25 percent. So there might actually be some “I identify with what that guy’s saying.” There might be a little bit of that in there.

And does it matter?

COLBERT: Oh, it absolutely doesn’t matter to me. I’m not crafting my work for a demographic. I’m just glad people watch, and I don’t suppose they’d watch other than to laugh. So if they’re laughing, then that’s fine with me.

Given that “willful ignorance” is bipartisan, do you consider yourself left-wing or right-wing?

COLBERT: There are times that my character’s ignorance of himself allows him to say liberal things or even hold liberal ideas without any knowledge of it. In reference to my character, he’s generally conservative.

From the book iSatiristas! Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians by Paul Provenza and Dan Dion. Copyright© 2010 by Paul Provenza. Photographs by Dan Dion. Reprinted by permission of It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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