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One Class, One Day: Colbert 101

Pondering what makes The Colbert Report so damn funny

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CAS lecturer Michael Rodriguez and his students smile a lot while investigating the satire of TV’s The Colbert Report. Photos 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 this past Tuesday. (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.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

17 Comments

17 Comments on One Class, One Day: Colbert 101

  • amlaskow on 03.31.2011 at 5:06 pm

    Sounds like a great class

    Do you know if they’ll be offering it next semester?

  • Darley on 04.01.2011 at 11:42 am

    Rodriguez and Colbert

    Kudos to Rodriguez!

    I’m a huge fan of Colbert, and MR is just the one to tackle him academically. I was in his MR’s class in the past. With degrees from Trinity College, Dublin, and Harvard, he is not only brilliant and insightful, he is also quite the wit himself, fully appreciating the depth and import of Colbert’s humor while dissecting it with keen insights and critical analysis.

    This is solid academics applied to modern culture — “pop,” to be sure, but nonetheless powerfully relevant.

  • Emily on 04.01.2011 at 2:12 pm

    Brilliant Idea!

    I had no idea this class was offered and now I’m kinda bummed I missed it! How do we sign up for this if it is available in the following semesters??

  • Anonymous on 04.02.2011 at 9:26 am

    The Colbert Report: American Satire

    Yes, it will be offered as a WR150 class in the fall of 2011 on MWF from 3-4pm.

  • Amy Mahler on 04.25.2011 at 4:40 pm

    Great professor

    I had Michael Rodriguez for my WR 150 class freshman year and had a fantastic time. I am so excited that BU is letting such a bright teacher push the boundaries of academia and engage with content that is current. You know what’s exciting and thought-provoking? Letting professors have some intellectually-charged fun in the classroom.

  • Double Standard on 04.25.2011 at 9:35 pm

    You know whats funny? If this class was more pro right wingers there would be a double standard. People would be calling this class “teaching bigotry”. There shouldn’t be classes that attract one kind of ideology unless people who don’t agree with Colbert all the time want to spend their class time and tuition money to arguing all the time. This is truly liberalism at its finest. Don’t get me wrong if this was an entirely pro-right class it would be equally as ridiculous. This is exactly why the country is a disaster. People are so divided based on ideologic labels the country itself is dividing. Let’s be pro looking at both sides of the spectrum and deciding which way is best.

  • Bill LaMay on 04.27.2011 at 12:19 pm

    Let’s all study a left-leaning, progressive and give students college credit for it! Boston University, you are a pathetic joke! I wonder if the class analyzes his democratic operative content, and one-sidedness. Ha! Probably not. If there was a Bill O’ Reilly class, I would say, “Excellent academic work!” But no, of course. What an left-wing, agenda-driven curriculum – not to mention it’s being promoted on the home page.

  • Anonymous on 04.27.2011 at 12:21 pm

    @you know whats funny

    Satire tends to be more liberal, so it would be difficult to teach a class on satire of a more conservative satirist. If you can find one, then maybe you could suggest to the university to make a class about them, or incorporate their work into this class as well, similar to how the works of satirists like Jonathan Swift, Ben Franklin, etc. were included as important readings for this class.

  • Anonymous on 04.27.2011 at 3:37 pm

    A Response

    I am concerned that some people feel the need to criticize an entire course — and Boston University — without actually having taken the class. This is analogous to criticizing or banning a book without having read it. Assumptions that are not based on first-hand experience or testable data are unhelpful, to put it mildly.

    For example, one person wrote, “Let’s all study a left-leaning, progressive and give students college credit for it! Boston University, you are a pathetic joke! I wonder if the class analyzes his democratic operative content, and one-sidedness. Ha! Probably not.”

    Why “probably not”? In fact, the class DOES analyze Mr. Colbert’s operative content and DOES question his apparent one-sidedness. The readings and discussions have included critical perspectives of the show, and some people in the class have voiced their reservations about a number of issues pertaining to Colbert’s show and his Rally. Of course the class DOES assume that Colbert is a public intellectual worth studying in a serious academic institution, which Boston University is, but that’s merely the springboard for more incisive critical inquiry. One of the major questions of the class is whether or not Colbert promotes civic engagement or disengaged cynicism. The course does not make an argument about these kinds of questions; it merely asks them and allows the students to make up their own minds through well reasoned essays that demonstrate their critical thinking skills. Incidentally, we have not reached a consensus on this important question, but of course the point is to debate the issue intelligently rather than to push any particular ideology — left, right, or center — since that would be indoctrination, not education.

    Another person wrote, “There shouldn’t be classes that attract one kind of ideology unless people who don’t agree with Colbert all the time want to spend their class time and tuition money to arguing all the time.”

    This class does not simply attract one kind of ideology. As suggested above, there is ample room for debate, disagreements, and differences of opinion. In fact, that’s the foundation and point of the class.

  • Anonymous on 04.28.2011 at 9:19 pm

    This sounds like an awesome class! Any chance freshman will be able to take it next year?

  • Anonymous on 04.29.2011 at 8:08 am

    to the haters

    You call this class a left-leaning class that is going to force it’s opinions on you when that is not the goal of it at all. I’m sure Boston University would offer a class on Bill O’Reilly if he ever said anything productive. However, it is hard to teach a class on someone who justifies the existence of God by the changing of the tides.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb3AFMe2OQY

    The problem with your thinking is that you label people by Republicans and Democrats when that is the downturn of the American two-party system. The government is supposed to be for the people and the only way to get anything done is to meet somewhere in the middle. I think that Stephen Colbert is a man who understands this while the egotist Bill O’Reilly promotes right-wing ideology with false premises to his argument. Do not interpret what I am saying as an attack on Republicans because I agree with many policies and I believe there are many intellectual Republicans. However, when you make attacks on a class with no basis to your argument you make yourself and the Republican party look stupid. People like you are who Stephen Colbert satirizes. Read a book, get a clue into politics, then make comments on the thread that promote discussion not cynicism (if you know what that means).

  • Funny on 04.29.2011 at 9:20 am

    @Response. Please take a survey when the class starts and see how many people consider themselves liberal vs. conservative vs moderate. Second, if you want to attract people of all ideologies then please label the class something else. I would even take Colbert vs. O’Reilly or Media and Politics. As a social experiment, someone should make a class that revolves around a more conservative news anchor. Let’s have a class called O’Reilly 101 and see how many people call this class bigotry. Colbert and Stewart by the way are hardly news anchors. They are comedians. And their march at DC a few months ago was hardly a legit political rally. It was a joke just like the rest of their commentary. I asked friends why they were going and what kind of change they wanted to see. Their response was “We need change, but I am not sure how we should get change”. That’s a rock solid plan! Is it not?

  • Anonymous on 04.29.2011 at 3:38 pm

    @please take a

    You would probably enjoy this class. One of the main questions the students discuss is whether or not The Colbert Report is in fact a news show, with many students on many different sides of this issue. The class is labeled “The Colbert Report: American Satire” which not only incorporates Colbert’s satirical work, but also the work of other satirists as well. Students also discussed the effects of the rally and whether it promoted civic engagement or not. The 3 required papers center around the show’s use of satire and its effects on society in general, not just in politics.

  • Anonymous on 04.29.2011 at 4:50 pm

    @@Response

    Have you read the article? Or have you researched the class in the slightest? It is a class about SATIRE. It’s called The Colbert Report: An American Satire. How could you possibly call a class about satire left-wing bigotry? Colbert plays a character. A character based on right-wing bigotry. The class examines WHY he does this, and the importance (or unimportance) of a satirist such as Colbert in today’s political spectrum. It has almost nothing to do with Colbert’s political ideologies, but more Colbert’s satirical tactics in a historical context. This includes comparing Colbert to classical satirists such as Jonathan Swift.

    “Colbert and Stewart by the way are hardly news anchors. They are comedians. And their march at DC a few months ago was hardly a legit political rally. It was a joke just like the rest of their commentary. I asked friends why they were going and what kind of change they wanted to see. Their response was “We need change, but I am not sure how we should get change”.”

    This is a key question that we have asked in the class. does Colbert promote civic engagement and change, or is he just a comedian?

    Honestly, through your comments, it sounds like you’d enjoy the discussions in class…

  • Response on 05.02.2011 at 6:40 pm

    Thank you for clearing things up. Maybe I would enjoy the class. Maybe I overreacted. Just tired of hearing how the right is always wrong. And even more tired of Obama creating a thicker line between both parties. He is a terrible leader. Presidents should be people we look up to and not people we want to shoot hoops with or admire their GQ attire. Colbert is definitely way better than Stewart. Stewart always chooses the left side and rambles about God only knows what. He uses big words which in the end is all fluff. We definitely need more places to discuss solutions to problems rather than fight over who is right. The country is in a sad state. It’s even more sad that it takes events like 9/11 or Bin Ladden’s death for people to come together.

  • Kristina on 05.05.2011 at 1:24 pm

    Wish I could take it!

    I was on the BU website trying to get my transcript for grad school, and saw the Colbert 101 class on the home page. I was curious, thinking that Colbert himself was going to be the lecturer, and found that Dr. Rodriguez is teaching…so amazing! I had him for my writing seminar when I was at BU 3 years back, and he is an exceptional teacher. He’s relatable, very intelligent, and demands a lot from you in class (trust me-this is a good thing. There’s nothing more beneficial than a tough-loving writing teacher).

    Enjoy!

  • Anonymous on 05.11.2011 at 1:16 am

    I am taking a satire course right now, and SATIRE IS NOT LIBERAL. IT IS CONSERVATIVE. Ever seen the Simpsons episode where everyone wants to be like Bart & do whatever they want, but the moral of the story is that you can’t do whatever you want? It’s more conformist than it is transforming. As you are transforming you actually are conforming. The argument over the liberalism of this course is ridiculous.

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