A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Rhetoric of “Truthiness”: Review of America According to Colbert

Review of America According to Colbert: Satire as Public Pedagogy by Sophia A. McClennen 2011; Palgrave Macmillan Michael Lucas, Clemson University

Enculturation : http://enculturation.net/a-rhetoric-of-truthiness (Published: April 8, 2014)

Sophia McClennen is a professor at Pennsylvania State University in Comparative Literature, Spanish, and Women's Studies. In her latest book, America According to Colbert: Satire as Public Pedagogy, she poses a Colbert-ian style question, “Stephen Colbert, great satirist, or greatest satirist? Hopefully, after reading this book, you will have your own answers” (11). This text demands that we pay more attention to what The Colbert Report has accomplished and encourages the reader to explore the possibility of satire as public pedagogy. Viewing satire and The Colbert Report in this way is particularly important for theoretical and applied (pedagogical) studies in rhetoric, because as a rhetorical tool, it can help one analyze and create messages in a variety of different mediums (as is reflected in the way The Colbert Report encourages audience participation).

Figure 1

McClennen places Colbert’s persona and The Colbert Report under a variety of different theoretical lenses provided by several predominant rhetors and theorists: Jurgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (42), Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (140), Liesbet van Zoonen’s Entertaining the Citizen (162), and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (170). McClennen also provides evidence of how The Colbert Report is operating within the public sphere by bringing in Pew Research Studies and citing examples of how the show is operating within the social spaces of YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, and the mainstream media. She also provides historically and politically relevant context by describing the post-9/11 setting into which the show was born, background information on the Patriot Act, and the events that have led to the current left/right divide in America.

A major influence for McCleenen is the work of cultural critic Henry Giroux and his focus on “public pedagogy” (which was influenced by Paulo Freire). McClennen summarizes Giroux’s argument that, “education increasingly takes place via the mass media, the movie theater, and other forms of popular culture,” as opposed to the classroom, news, and the home (71). Therefore, McClennen finds that shows like The Colbert Report, don’t merely entertain their audience, but also encourage them to participate in critical engagements within the public sphere: “satire deserves greater attention as one of the most significant forms of critical public pedagogy in operation today” (73). This argument for satire gains momentum when it is placed in relation to other “serious” forms of news that are failing to provide the services they have promised in the past: “clearly this is a transitional moment for news, as the mainstream moves more toward infotainment and spectacle and alternative news sources have become the only place where one finds a combination of information and critical reflection” (86).

I think this text is valuable for those of us in rhetoric and composition because it provides a new lens through which we can view public rhetoric and pedagogy in the digital age. For instance, after teaching texts on rhetorical theory, this text can then be brought into the classroom to generate discussion on how rhetoric is currently working within the public sphere. This is due to the fact that McClennen echoes many of the concerns voiced in rhetoric and composition studies about the separation between entertainment and academia, e.g., in the work of Gregory Ulmer.1 Although McClennen provides convincing arguments for how The Colbert Report can serve as a public pedagogy outside the classroom, I think she can strengthen her general argument by demonstrating the usefulness of The Colbert Report within the classroom as well. This is another instance where using the term “parody” instead of “satire” (mentioned in more detail later) could help McClennen open up her discussion to other discourses outside media and popular culture studies. For instance, others have already highlighted how parody can aid classroom pedagogy, e.g., John J. Ruszkiewicz’s article, “Parody and Pedagogy: Explorations in Imitative Literature” in College English, and E. Ashley Hall, Kathie Gossett, and Elizabeth Vincelette’s “Parody, Penalty, and Pedagogy” in Copy(write): Intellectual Property in the Writing Classroom.

Nonetheless, McClennen provides a valuable first step in showing how public pedagogy in The Colbert Report is generated by Colbert’s ability to encourage participation in the public sphere. This audience participation2 draws attention to an “outside” of the show and is therefore able to construct “an alternative public sphere through which viewers can imagine a different connection to their nation” (102). This “different connection” is enabled by Colbert’s use of satire. McClennen believes that satire deserves more attention because it can do what news, entertainment, political debate, and critical theory, can’t accomplish by themselves:

through the performance of scrutiny and critique, the audience is asked to perform their own scrutiny and critique… unlike intense political commentary or abstract critical theory, satire can reach a general, educated public, and it can show, in a way that can combine silliness with seriousness, that commonly accepted truths require reconsideration and resistance. (74)

It is this careful combination of silliness and seriousness that creates interesting collisions that require contemplation by the audience:

the basic element of satire, where the audience is presented with the disconnect between the object of satire’s arrogant ignorance and their own awareness of that absurdity, produces a critical effect that allows the audience to see the folly of a public figure and take distance from their actions while also judging them. (79)

Colbert is able to do this through the creation of his “naïve persona with comic exaggeration” (79). Therefore, Colbert is able to differentiate himself from other forms of satire and humor because he “embodies that which is being lampooned” (75). What makes his form of satire even more distinct is that Colbert can “offer sharp, biting satire, but then add self-mockery, silliness, and a softer tone” (89). It is this ‘self-mockery, silliness, and a softer tone’ that is missing from others who attempt to do something similar.

McClennen starts out with an analysis of Stephen’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, and she argues that this event had a major effect on the trajectory of The Colbert Report. She finds that it helped propel Stephen’s character into the national spotlight and that it generated the themes that helped define his act. The situation itself offered plenty of subject matter to criticize, in particular, the increasingly friendly relationship between the Bush Administration and the WHCA (15). At the event, Colbert brought attention to this relationship through a form of satire that entertained, concisely criticized the situation, and exploded over a variety of non-traditional media outlets. For McClennen this is a watershed moment that established Colbert within the national spotlight and drew attention to the problematic relationship between media and power. But Colbert’s speech also did something unexpected: because the mainstream news failed to report on the event (30), the event also revealed how non-traditional mediums can fill this void. By posting and reposting footage of the speech on the Internet, people were able to bypass the mainstream news in order to gain access to the information they wanted (34).

Next, McClennen provides the post 9/11 context into which The Colbert Report appeared. At this time there was both limited public access to information, and limited public interest in the issues. However, comedy, in particular satire, was (and still is) one of the few ways, “through which it was possible to encourage the public to reflect critically on these issues” (41). McClennen makes the case that the ability of citizens to participate in the public sphere was being limited by the rise in right-wing fundamentalisms (46), the increasing influence of neoliberal economic policy brought on by Regan and Thatcher in the 80’s (44), and the culture of fear brought on by the war on terror (57). However, The Colbert Report is able to provide alternative narratives and therefore reinvigorate the public sphere by “using satire to open up a space for debate and deliberation about the state of the nation and it practices,” and this creates “a sense of empowerment among his views by reaffirming their ability to shape public discourse and influence politics” (43-44). McClennen finds this especially important, owing to the paralysis that poststructuralist and deconstructionist thought has had on the left: “U.S. critical thought has led to a wariness, if not an outright disavowal, of foundational ideas” that might counteract the right-wing fundamentalisms (51). Therefore, “the left’s hesitancy in advocating a political vision has made it easy for the right to appropriate the left’s language at the service of the right’s own agenda” (52).

In Chapter 3 McClennen provides insight into a tradition of satire that has been present in American discourse since the revolutionary war (69). While Colbert’s satirical style is unique, she recognizes that it wasn’t created in a vacuum, but was influenced by a tradition created by Jonathan Swift, Ben Franklin, Samuel Clemens, That Was the Week that Was (NBC 1964-5), Pat Paulsen on The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour (CBS 1967-9), Saturday Night Live, Politically Incorrect, and The Daily Show. Her argument here is that “Colbert’s comedy both participates in and furthers the legacy of U.S. satire” (69). But she also points out that a new sadistic humor has also been on the rise since 9/11 (70). She differentiates Colbert’s satire from this problematic brand by championing its public pedagogy aspect (71), as well as its ability to make fun of itself (89).

McClennen then elaborates on particular elements of The Colbert Report: the history of the show, Colbert’s previous experiences in similar programs (103), who Colbert’s persona is modeled after (110), and the set design (112). One particularly important element of The Colbert Report that McClennen focuses on in Chapter 4 is Colbert’s use of word play. This can most readily be seen in one of the core concepts that The Colbert Report revolves around (and a term coined by Colbert): “Truthiness.” McClennen quotes Colbert describing truthiness to Charlie Rose as, “‘passionate emotion and certainty over information’” (121). Although not mentioned by McClennen, “truthiness” can be seen as a rhetorical tool: by parodying Fox News’ rhetorical stance of ‘pathos over logos at all costs’, Colbert is able to teach his viewers how to spot these reoccurring misuses of pathos. Because Colbert has provided a term for this new and highly problematic misuse of pathos, “truthiness” can become a rhetorical tool for calling out and undermining this rhetorical stance. I think making the connection that Colbert’s “truthiness” can be seen as a rhetorical tool would allow McClennen to show how “truthiness” is not just a theoretical cornerstone of the show, but also an analytical tool provided for the viewer.

“Truthiness” provides a good example of how language is highlighted throughout the show and this should be of special interest those of us in rhetoric and composition studies. McClennen explains how the term reflects many of the problems occurring in the ever-changing mediascape, and Colbert is able to bring this to our attention through parody: “Colbert’s character embodies just this sort of passionate commitment to unsubstantiated truths” (121). Colbert’s ability to draw attention to media conventions is also present in instances of word play, and McClennen highlights Colbert’s reoccurring segment “The Word,” as well as the “veritable linguistic smorgasbord” during the introduction of the Colbert report” (130). McClennen finds that Colbert’s word play enables him to link together, “language, politics, and social perception,” in order to offer a “sustained critique of the crisis of representation found in discourses of both right and the left” (125).

In Chapter 5, McClennen discusses the degree to which Colbert’s satire is effective as a critical form of public pedagogy and how The Colbert Report has had a positive impact on the audience’s ability to connect to social issues. McClennen finds that The Colbert Report promotes the idea that, “activism is possible and relatively easy” and challenges the viewer to reflect on the “causes that deserve activism” (169). The show is able to do this because “Colbert’s satire refuses binaries and oppositions common to most arguments about the connections between the public sphere, the media environment, and political activism” (177). By refusing to reinforce problematic oppositions, and refusing to provide definitive answers, the show is able to point outside itself, and this provides the viewer with an education that doesn’t merely end after a point is made: “the show does not give answers, but it does use satire to help viewers critique the information we receive and the process by which we receive it” (181). McClennen provides an example (from the first show) of how Colbert works to turn the viewer to the issues in their own lives: after he compliments his audience for their intellect and activism he then satirically states, “‘you’re doing something right now. You’re watching TV’” (170). For McClennen these self-reflexive statements “leave little doubt that Colbert hopes to remind his audience that watching TV is not akin to being an activist” (170).

Here, a key point is established by McClennen and then echoed throughout the book: that Colbert and The Colbert Report are able to devalue their importance at appropriate moments, in order to not merely replace problematic representations, but to leave it up to the viewer to decide for themselves. For example, the bullet points in “The Word” are not always critical, but vary from “silly to incisive,” and this creates a “destabilizing effect” that thereby requires the audience to “produce their own active and engaged interpretation and analysis” (135). By encouraging audience participation McClennen insightfully articulates how Colbert is able to escape the left’s ‘problematic postmodern situation’ that revolves around the circular notion that “if words are always insufficient or repressive” then one is unable “argue against the way the right misused them” (126).

The strength of McClennen’s position is in recognizing how the use of satire in The Colbert Report allows the show to operate as a form public pedagogy. In doing so, McClennen finds a way around the over-determined false dichotomies that are continually reinforced by our media and political discourse: democrat v. republican, liberal v. conservative, apathetic non-participation v. overzealous participation that reinforces problematic stereotypes. Because of this she is able to highlight one of the main successes of The Colbert Report itself, that it reflects everything back onto the audience, where the potential for change exists. McClennen recognizes that The Colbert Report is working to develop participation in the public sphere in two major ways, “first, he includes pieces that ask his viewers to do something” (160). These instances include asking his audience to edit specific Wikipedia pages, compete in green-screen challenges, and create alternate versions of his portrait (160). These silly or ‘just-for-fun’ interactions that ask his viewers to play with media (and thereby gain a better understanding of how it operates) are then dispersed with interactions that can have an even greater social impact. In these interactions he calls on his viewers to “donate to the Red Cross to help victims of the Japanese tsunami” and encourages his audience to make contributions to Donors Choose (160). Of course, the most obvious way The Colbert Report encourages participation is through social media and a “complex Colbert Nation blog website,” as well as iPhone applications, and fan websites (160).

Although it is not difficult to see why McClennen attempts to differentiate some forms of satire from other problematic forms, I would argue against her move to lump South Park in with examples of “satire and irony that do not lead to productive political debate” (74). She finds that these problematic forms are “negative, merely sarcastic,” and “should not be confused with politically productive satire [. . .] the difference is that politically productive satire is not satisfied with cynicism as a response” (74). However, I don’t think South Park is satisfied with cynicism as a response, and differentiating between ‘productive vs. un-productive satire’ leads to the question: “who gets to decide what constitutes a ‘productive political debate’?”

Her critique of South Park gains ground with the first few seasons, however, as the show has developed (and Matt and Trey have developed their craft), the episodes have become especially pertinent to discussions taking place in the public sphere. I would argue that these later seasons practice the public pedagogy McClennen promotes, but perhaps in a different way. For instance, while Colbert is able to put on rallies and create forums for fan participation, one could argue the effectiveness of these to transfer to “real” political participation. While South Park’s fan involvement in the public sphere might not be as readily noticeable as The Colbert Report’s, I think that the strength of both of them is that they are able to embody that which they attempt to make absurd (through parody), and therefore allow the viewer the opportunity to consider both the medium and the message. I think both of the shows’ strengths lay, not necessarily in transferring “fake” politics to “real” politics, or humorous discourse to serious discourse, but allowing their viewers a chance for reflection and encouraging their viewers to create new ways of doing and thinking, be they political or not.

This problematic aspect of the text could be worked out if McClennen would spend more time distinguishing parody from satire,3 and in doing so bring out parody’s ability to escape the cynicism that typically keeps satire bogged down. This distinction would also avoid another problematic instance when McClennen champions the way in which Colbert has, “suggested that truthiness had severely limited the possibilities for truth based on evidence, reasoned consideration, and assessment of the facts” (123). But here I would not suggest that we blindly opine for ‘truth based on evidence, reasoned consideration, and assessment of the facts’. Instead I would rather promote a discourse that encourages curiosity, and this is the real strength of The Colbert Report and South Park: not in “correcting” the way things are (which would only repeat the problem) but encouraging curiosity. This is what McClennen herself promotes elsewhere: “the show does not give answers, but it does use satire to help viewers critique the information we receive and the process by which we receive it” (181). But the theoretical disconnect between these different sections of the text needs to be worked out.

Overall, McClennen provides valuable insight into the public pedagogy of The Colbert Report. While at times the reoccurring examples and arguments bog down the text (there are a few “haven’t I read this before?” moments), her attention to detail and the variety of examples and arguments she provides reflects thorough research on The Colbert Report and the context it operates within. As the public sphere becomes closed off to interesting and open debate, citizens will turn more and more to shows like The Colbert Report that provide the viewer with a chance for critical reflection on current events, as well as a way for them to understand the rhetorical moves made by mass media and by politicians. Therefore, McClennen’s work will standout as an important reference point for inquiry into what will hopefully become a predominate rhetorical discourse.


1 Gregory L. Ulmer in Applied Grammatology: “the media have replaced the educational institutions as the purveyors of whatever philosophy or humanities the public is exposed to” (14).

2 As mentioned later, McClennen describes how Colbert asks his audience to use social media to enact political and social change (whether silly, serious, or both) and asks them to donate to special causes (160).

3 For example, it would have helped to bring in someone like Margaret Rose and her landmark work Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern which provides thorough distinctions between these humorous literary devices and genres (e.g., satire, parody, irony, travesty, burlesque, etc.).