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Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Jane Austen Report: Stephen Colbert & Jane Austen as great masters of the proud tradition of the sophisticated Swiftian put-on



Many of you are aware that The Colbert Report will air its final show tonight. For those among you not familiar with why that is a very big deal for a lot of people, and not just here in the US, here is my edited down version of Wikipedia’s excellent introductory summary:

The Colbert Report is an American late-night satirical television program hosted by Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. The show focuses on a fictional anchorman character named Stephen Colbert, played by his real-life namesake. The character, described by Colbert as a "well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot", is a caricature of televised political pundits. Furthermore, the show satirizes conservative personality-driven political talk programs, particularly Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor…. the show has broadcast 1,442 episodes over its nine-year run… The show's writing is grounded in improvisation, and often lampoons current events stories. The show's structure also includes a guest interview, in which the Colbert character will attempt to deconstruct his opponent's argument… the program's set is "hyper-American," epitomizing the character's ego.,,,”

I have not been a regular watcher of The Colbert Report, but I have always enjoyed watching whenever I have tuned in over the years. A personal highlight for me was in July of this year when Colbert had as his guest my good friend Steve Wise, founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project:

It occurred to me today that this would be a great time to post about my long-held sense that the show’s basic premise is strongly resonant with Jane Austen’s satire—and that both are great examples of the long proud literary tradition of the sophisticated literary put-on—but how are they the same, and how are they different?

Recently, Diane Reynolds and I have had a fruitful discussion in Janeites & Austen L about the veiled allusion by Jane Austen that she and I both see in Emma to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which of course is the most famous and celebrated hoax in literary history (here’s the link to the fourth and final of my four posts on that topic):

Colbert has clearly drawn fertile inspiration from Swift, as the following discussion (note the significant date of the article!) of an episode in which Colbert makes the Swift connection explicit (a link to the episode is included):

And of course Sascha Baron Cohen’s numerous hoax characters (Ali G, Borat, etc) are in a very similar vein.

I find it hard to believe that very many readers of Swift’s great put-on actually believed he was serious-but I bet some Swift scholars have actually researched that question, and wouldn’t it be something if we found out that many were, in Mary Crawford’s words, “taken in” by Swift’s “manoeuvering”? Remember PT Barnum’s Audenian/Austenian cynicism about a sucker being born every minute, etc etc.

I would not be surprised to learn that some viewers who accidentally stumbled on Colbert’s show back in 2005, before he became really famous, and without realizing that they had stumbled into Comedy Central, were also “taken in” by Colbert’s faux-conservative-pundit persona. That’s because Colbert walks right up to the edge of the line of the parody---the difference between his faux persona and that of the butts of his satire is at times razor–thin. And that is a key part of the payoff of his satire, as we find ourselves saying, repeatedly, yes, they really are as absurd in real life as he mock-portrays them on the show. It’s impossible to say where absurdist parody ends, and faithful representation of absurd reality begins.

But once that early stage was passed, it’s remarkable that Colbert and his team were able to milk 9 years of shows on the premise of a put-on put-on, if you will. I.e., they have managed to produce high quality comedy even for an audience that pretty much all are fully aware that they are watching a put-on.

Ali G and Borat bring us one step closer to Jane Austen, I think, because they are completely convincing to the butts of their satire, who get caught in Cohen’s 21st century Candid Camera-like punking, and never even know they’ve been had, because they have unwittingly hoist themselves on their own petards of prejudice and evil.

And that is what brings us to the kind of put-on we see in Jane Austen’s novels, of which I could bring forward 100 examples—but let’s go with Emma Woodhouse, because she feels closest to me to the spirit of Colbert’s and Cohen’s faux personae.

I claim that Jane Austen deliberately played a Swiftian game when she made Emma the heroine (and therefore the focal consciousness) of her eponymous novel, because I believe Emma is at the top of the list of her characters with whom the rich elitist snobs reading her novels, whom JA actually abhorred, would identify—I go further and suggest that JA’s own rich, elitist niece, Fanny Knight, was the primary real life source for the character of Emma Woodhouse—and that it was NOT meant as a compliment!

I say that Jane Austen deliberately wrote Emma from the “wrong” point of view---i.e., the true heroine of the story is actually Jane Fairfax-and what a devastating irony it is, then, to have the true heroine of the story speak only a handful of lines in the novel, and to have the reader NEVER be granted access to Jane’s thoughts and feelings, but be forced to try to figure out what is actually happening to Jane, despite the constant interference and undermining of that figuring-out process by Emma’s constant and obtrusive cluelessness..

And isn’t that what Colbert has done for 9 years and 1,442 episodes of his show? He has made a pompous, jingoistic fool the “hero” of the show! And for the same reason, I suggest, that JA made Emma her “heroine”-i.e., the better to convey, via parody and satire, everything that is wrong about the kind of talking head Colbert is hoaxing.

And that’s why it doesn’t surprise me to know that Stephen Colbert has at least some familiarity with Jane Austen’s writing, and several of his writers probably a lot more. Check out this 2008 episode of The Colbert Report:


In particular, watch the 80-second segment that runs from 2:00 to 3:20 on the video clock---it’s Colbert’s very funny faux-jingoistic conceit on the inaccurate claim by the OED that Northanger Abbey was the first published usage of the word “baseball” (see my following posts where I set the record straight on that point several years ago):

I won’t spoil the comedy by giving you any further explanation of his shtick in this segment, but trust me, it will hold special humor for Janeites with a sense of humor!

And so, farewell to “Stephen Colbert”, and welcome the real Stephen Colbert, who will finally shed his mask, so I understand, and be himself as he replaces David Letterman. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait too long for a new talent to appear to give us the next iteration of the Great Put-On!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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