Rob Patterson

'Truthiness' Sets Colbert Free

Word is that Bill O'Reilly likes The Colbert Report. That's just about the only thing more hilarious than The Colbert Report itself, as well as notion just drenched with irony. And irony is what drives Colbert to its comedic and conceptual heights.

It also proves that O'Reilly, in addition to having an ego so bloated he finds parody to be the most sincere form of flattery, obviously is bereft of any sense of irony, which is one of the arrows that must be in the quiver of any battler who wants to taken seriously as a thinker. But anyone who really thinks that has stomached their way through even some of O'Reilly's show knows that he's no thinker, but just plays one on TV.

And Colbert plays the smug, self-satisfied conservative pundit on TV to a "T." This Comedy Central spin-off from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has already surpassed its progenitor, rapidly becoming the best political comedy show on the tube since the brief run of the UK's ingenious "That Was The Week That Was" in the US back in the 1960s.

The Report shines with brilliance from its opening: the soaring, screeching bald eagle and Colbert waving the flag; the spinning list of his superior qualities; that stare right into the viewer's eyes after Colbert removes his glasses that announces gravitas is here to enlighten, if not save, us. He looks like George Will Jr., right down to the Brooks Brothers-style shirt and tie that just screams WASPy superiority and class off the expensive rack. Yes, here's a man who knows what's good for us. And wrong wingers accuse liberals of that sin? Ah, sweet irony.

From his very first show, Colbert generated widespread cultural impact with his debut of "The Word," which was "truthiness." He redefined an archaic term for genuine truth as instinctive truth that comes from the gut rather than knowledge and rational thought -- the signature notion behind most every stupid and failed policy of the Bush Presidency, Inc. The American Dialect Society named it 2005's Word of the Year, and if any coinage rings with the truth of the times we live in as well as the essence of TV talking head punditry, it's "truthiness." I can't wait for language czar William Safire to address it. That will be delicious irony.

Where Colbert truly shines is in his interviews. His persona allows him to ask those questions that so many TV interviewers seem to skirt if not avoid altogether, and the results can sometimes be side splitting as well as illuminating.

Sadly, one of our best congressmen and politicians, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank (D) -- a man who has shown his humor in the past and is bravely outspoken about who he is and what he believes -- got ticked off at Colbert when interviewed on one of the show's premier running features, "Better Know a District." Frank later said he hadn't ever seen the show, so one could forgive him for being blindsided when Colbert asked the openly-gay congressman how it felt to be "openly-left handed" (more irony there, given how leftist Frank is in our cowardly Congress) and whether his wife minded the fact that he's a bit overweight.

C'mon, Barney. You're smart enough to get it, aren't you? And can't you enjoy a TV feature that genuinely enlightens us about our fellow Americans, the cornucopia of our nation's nooks and crannies, and the legislative worker bees -- who all seem oh so human thanks to Colbert's off the wall questions -- that represent these tiny pieces of the American puzzle?

Colbert was recently at his finest when his guest was Keith Olbermann, the MSNBC pundit embroiled in a spat with O'Reilly. "Why do you have a problem with my hero, Papa Bear Bill O'Reilly?" Colbert asked him.

"Well, Stephen, he's an idiot."

"You say that as a bad thing," Colbert retorted. "I think he sees the world simply, without all your complicated facts." Ah, sweet truthiness. The two then went on in a brilliant back and forth where they nearly cracked each other up so far that Colbert almost broke character.

Then, just a few episodes later, on came conservative radio talk host (and sometimes O'Reilly radio sub) Michael Smerconish to tout his anti-PC rant Muzzled. "It's good to be with a kindred spirit," he told Colbert in what seemed to be all seriousness. Ah, sweet irony.

The Colbert Report's best quality may be in providing one of the most compelling reasons to hope that the wrong-wing junta doesn't prevail -- they just don't get it, i.e. the many nuances that make for great humor.

Colbert gets it, and he uses it as a sword to cannily puncture those he seems -- operative word -- to be one of, and all too often to those he is skewering. It's the best laughs I've found among the scores of cable channels available in this modern age, a time so troubling if not distressing that the medicine of laughter, served up by The Colbert Report, tastes like nectar of the gods.

Rob Patterson is an entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2006

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