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One Class, One Day: Colbert 101

Pondering what makes The Colbert Report so damn funny

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

CAS lecturer Michael Rodriguez and his students smile a lot while investigating the satire of TV’s The Colbert Report. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

It isn’t many courses that require regular viewing of one of cable television’s most popular shows and a trek to New York for a live taping of the program.

But that’s what’s on the syllabus this semester for the 20 BU students taking Michael Rodriguez’s seminar The Colbert Report: American Satire. Purists might decry the decline of western civilization in a class whose course work lumps required viewing of a TV show, in this case Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, with a reading list that includes Jonathan Swift, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, and the Roman poets Horace and Juvenal. Colbert’s I Am America (And So Can You!) is also mandatory. But the mirthful excursion to the Big Apple is bracketed by class discussion of such matters as whether Colbert is “parodying postmodernism and actually reifying the modern,” as Rodriguez summarizes one textbook’s argument.

The Colbert Report spoofs cable-news bloviators, represented by host Stephen Colbert’s portrayal of a knee-jerk, right-wing gasbag. He’s the kind of guy who, interviewing Democratic strategist James Carville about the BP oil spill, insists that “if this was Reagan, he would have stripped to his skivvies, put a knife in his teeth, gone down there and punched that oil well shut.”

Rodriguez, a lecturer in the College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program, holds a doctorate in English literature, and his course, open to any undergraduate, insists that Colbert ranks with history’s great literary satirists. Students have spent the semester pondering a double-barreled question: what’s the comedian really saying, and why is the way he says it so funny?

“I was struck by the sharp literary qualities of the show,” Rodriguez says. “Colbert is part of a long tradition that stretches back to the ancient Greeks.” No mere pop-culture clown, Colbert is an educator, Rodriguez says, whose “skillful use of literary devices, such as syllogism, logical fallacy, burlesque, and travesty, ultimately fosters critical thinking and imaginative engagement, two of the primary skills that writing seminars seek to develop in students.” (He’s not alone in his admiration. One week after the show debuted, a New York Times reviewer suggested Saturday Night Live could retire, as the newcomer “packs more wit and acid commentary in 22 minutes of his one-man show than multiple skits by the entire cast of SNL.”)

One recent class zeroed in on what Rodriguez calls the central questions for students (if not viewers): are Colbert’s interviews mere play or an attempt to get at some serious truth? Does his mocking promote civic engagement or foster cynicism and civic withdrawal? Consensus was elusive. Rodriguez said that Colbert is obviously liberal, but George Greenstreet (COM’13) suggested the comic’s target isn’t necessarily conservative politics per se.

“I’m not sure if you saw last night,’ he said, “but Harry Connick, Jr., was on. Colbert said, ‘So you do the classics? I’m going to ask you some classic interview questions.’’’ Colbert then unleashed inconsequential blather worthy of daytime talk TV.

“I think it’s geared more toward parodying interviewers themselves,” Greenstreet argued.

Rodriguez leavened the academese by screening for the class the Colbert segment “Cooking with Feminists,” where Colbert interviewed Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem about their women’s radio network, while insisting they help him make an apple pie. (“Gloria, if you’ll grab some of those Macintosh apples, and explain to me, what is the state of American feminism?”)

The show’s refusal to be easily categorized—is it news or is it comedy?—has been a source of discussion throughout the semester for students like Marina Hunt (CAS’14). “I find the debate fascinating because so many people, especially teenagers, rely on these shows” for news. Hunt is among the many first-time-longtimes (first-time Colbert students, longtime Colbert fans) packing the course, and they’re enthralled, not bored, by academically dissecting the laughs he earns each night.

“Anyone can watch the show and see that it’s funny,” says Rebecca Sita (COM’13), “but I think we get a lot more out of our discussion of why it’s funny.” Majoring in film and television, she says she’s naturally interested in how Colbert uses rhetoric to hit a comic bull’s-eye. (Confessing, and “this is kind of embarrassing,” that a poster of Colbert adorns the wall over her bed, she says, “So yeah, I’m a big fan.”)

“I always watched the show mindlessly, taking in the jokes and laughing at them, but never considering how well-written and delivered they were,” says Jessica Gawrych (CAS’14). The class has given her “a new perspective on the show and a better understanding for how it works.”

Attending the taping, with tickets procured by a class member whose cousin works for the show, is a case of Mohammed going to the mountain, an alternative to the star coming to campus. “I am trying everything I can to get Colbert to address the class,” Rodriguez says. He’s also trying to book Stephen Prothero, a CAS religion professor who appeared on Colbert’s show last year and coincidentally again on March 29. (Colbert gave up Catholicism for Lent, Prothero says, and asked the good professor to lay out his religious options.)

Rodriguez hopes to present a bound copy of the course syllabus, student essays, and assignment sheets to Colbert when he and the class attend the April 26 taping. “I think it would make a nice gift,” he says.

The man who filmed “Cooking with Feminists” ought to appreciate laughing with academics.

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