‘The Colbert Report’ as part of ‘The Fifth Estate’

The Moderate Voice’s Joe Gandelman has posted a really cool and insightful interview between Joe Windish (video/web producer) and Syracuse University’s Robert J. Thompson (Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television). In it, they analyze what Thompson calls “The Fifth Estate” (shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report that are using comedy while standing watchdog over the mainstream media’s failures).

From The Moderate Voice:

Stephen Colbert: A Media Maestro Plays Philly (Guest Voice)
April 14th, 2008 by JOE GANDELMAN, Editor-In-Chief

. . .

JW: Colbert is a really tough interview. There’s not a lot of fluff on his show. He brings on hugely complex topics and seems to help his interviewees make their point. And the arc of the show through a season is almost like a college course, he is educating his audience. I come away blown away sometimes. It seems like to me a very high-brow news show. Bring me back to earth Bob.

BT: I agree with everything you said up to the news show. I even agreed up through and including high-brow. I think in the end, yes, you can call The Colbert Report educational television, in quotes. Whenever I heard those reports that so many of our young people were getting so much of their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report I thought to myself, that’s not a bad place to get it. Now, of course, it shouldn’t be the only place, but it certainly is a good place to stop.

Yes, I agree, it’s educational television. And I also agree that he’s got it worked out well enough that it’s almost got what appears to be a coherent curriculum. I mean there really is a sense of organization and progression of how he takes what has gone on in the previous 24 hours, weekend, whatever, and it’s got a certain seminar quality to it. I would have no problem calling it high-brow because what’s going on in those Colbert interviews is incredibly complex. He is juggling a number of balls in the air and he virtually never fumbles them.

Ball number one is he has got to stay in character as this O’Reilly-esque 24-hour cable-news guy. At the same time, he’s not only trying to stay in that character and be funny, but also to get his own opinion and analysis of these things, and then he also manages to make an awful lot of interviewees make more sense than they even knew they could. He really helps his interviewees get their point across because he needs for them to be clear in order for his mocking of it to work. If you’re just on there fumbling around and not being clear about what you say it’s a lot harder to make fun of you.

I think it’s a high brow show. I think it’s educational. And I think it is about the news. But I would stop at the point of calling it a news show. I think we’ve got a couple of categories that are out there. We’ve got, “the news,” …the news when it’s working is trying to adhere to a strict sense of journalistic guidelines. And then you’ve got comedy and satire, which doesn’t have to do that. I think we’ve got a lot of good comedy and satire out there now, and Colbert and The Daily Show are that, and you’ve got a lot of news, but the question is, do we have any good news? And I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to say there is no legitimate news show out there that is as good at doing what it does as Colbert and Jon Stewart are at doing what they do. So the level of achievement right now is higher in comedy, which doesn’t have to deal with all the journalistic stuff and all the rules but they’re better at what they’re doing than I think most news operations are at what they do.

. . .

Read the full article and interview here

This is one of the more thoughtful analyses of The Colbert Report that I can recall reading; it’s definitely worth your time, should you be able to spare any.


  1. I can’t say enough good things about all the articles that are coming about as a result of TCR‘s visit to Philly, this one included. His analysis of the role of both TCR and TDS really say a great deal about the legitimacy and the roles that both shows play in American politics and social commentary, and how they should not be underestimated, which, perhaps, could be why Hillary and Barack are avoiding them both like the plague, aside from Michelle Obama. I particularly enjoyed this passage:

    “And I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to say there is no legitimate news show out there that is as good at doing what it does as Colbert and Jon Stewart are at doing what they do.”

    Amen to that!

  2. coquette says:

    Oh, that brought me back to around the time I first started watching Comedy Central…when they would broadcast the State of the Union speech but have a running commentary. Sort of like live blogging but on TV!!! How come they stopped that??

  3. One of the Heroes says:

    TCR should go to Philly more often because all of the articles that have come out as a result of this road trip have been some of the best articles I’ve read about Stephen and TCR in a long time.

    I especially liked this passage: “Colbert is going to go there as a bona fide celebrity and, in many people’s eyes, myself included, as a public intellectual who happens to not be a journalist but who happens to be a comedian. And that’s where I unify this whole thing. I think American life is hopefully about a constant civic conversation that we’re in. If we have any hope for a democratic republic one hopes that we’re all in this civic conversation. And public intellectuals can lead that conversation and they don’t have to all be journalists. They can be novelists as has been the case in the past. They can be journalists. And there’s absolutely nothing saying they can’t be comedians. I think both Colbert and Stewart are public intellectuals and they just happen to be working in the idiom of comedy as opposed to in the industry of journalism.”

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