Studying Stephen Colbert. Seriously, Funny

By Gail Shister 

Nation, Stephen Colbert is not a worthy subject for academic discourse.

Them’s fightin’ words to scholarly members of Colbert Nation like Penn State’s Sophia McClennen, the latest academician to write a book – with footnotes! — about the Comedy Central star.

Its title: ‘Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy’ (Palgrave Macmillan), though I like to call it ‘I Am Satire (And So Can You!)’ Out in paperback this month, the book is part of what the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi recently labeled as ‘the academic world’s obsession’ with Colbert.

Professor McClennen, who disputes that description, does acknowledge that Colbert’s on-air persona is “a huge deal in academia. On a basic cognitive level, in-character satire is a more complex form of satire. At a rhetorical level, the comedy is more complicated.”

Uh, will there be a quiz?

A self-described ‘Colbert geek,’ McClennen argues that “The Colbert Report” heralds a new era in media culture; one in which comedians increasingly influence the politics and news they satirize.

With his Super PACS and his vocabulary-bending ‘The Word’ segments, Colbert “plays with exercising his power,” she says in an interview.

He represents a “new kind of public intellectual-satirist,” in the vein of Mark Twain, Ben Franklin and Jonathan Swift.

No offense, Professor, but Colbert, like Jon Stewart, would probably have a good laugh at

his work being seriously studied at the university level. Or the kindergarten level, for that matter. Have “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” really become that enmeshed in the establishment?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” McClennen, 46, says. “At the end of the day, if a cultural form is powerful enough to get noticed, it becomes part of the system it’s critiquing.”

McClennen, (left) who worked with Conan O’Brien at The Harvard Lampoon, didn’t even know who Colbert was until she caught a video of his mind-blowing performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Association dinner. (With two small children, she says she was never awake at 11:30 p.m.)

It was, she says, “an extraordinarily important event in U.S. history. It was the one moment when George W. Bush had someone stand that close to him and expose him for what he really was. Our news media wasn’t doing it effectively, not even close.”

P.S. On a more somber note, McClennen, a tenured professor at Penn State, says the Joe Paterno scandal “will continue to be very hard for quite a few people “on campus. “They idolized him. I’m not in that group.

“The faculty, in general, were in shock. We’re feeling a great sense of responsibility to take leadership. We’re concerned how the students will navigate their connection to the university.”