Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Colbert Candidacy, the Put-On Perfected

The GOP debates could make a profit on Pay TV if they let Stephen Colbert join the panel. How much would it be worth to see him match wits with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry?

Sadly, like his other ventures, Colbert’s South Carolina candidacy is only fodder for his reality-blurring show, the perfection of a trend that began to emerge in the 1960s when TV made American life too complicated for Bob Hope-Milton Berle one-liners.

Rough sketches for the persona Colbert now presents were subjects back then for New Yorker critics such as Susan Sontag (“Notes on Camp”) and Jacob Brackman in “The Put-On” to define a slippery comedy in which the audience is in the know as a figure feigns utter seriousness while subverting a subject’s defenses.

Brackman could have been describing today’s Colbert in parsing the put-on as “it disorients the interviewee, ridicules the interview process, communicates ‘real’ ideas and feelings yet deflates the seriousness of questions and replies.”

Only clueless Al Gore has breached this implicit agreement by referring to “your character” during an interview, shocking Colbert into a “My character?” reaction.

Susan Sontag in her ambivalent book-length essay on Camp quotes Oscar Wilde, "One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art," linking it to a gay sensibility that emphasizes artifice but holding on to her own reservations about its ultimate value.

She would be in a minority today. For those who revel in being part of Colbert’s “in the know” audience, this week’s New York Times Magazine has a fascinating profile of how he came to be what is now an iconic 21st century figure.

He won’t be running for president, but he’s doing more than any of Obama’s challengers to help keep us sane.

Update: Colbert will be on ABC Sunday morning. Now that he’s turned his Super PAC over to Jon Stewart, the quasi-candidate is free to take his act beyond Comedy Central.

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