BB #42: Behind the Mask

Dave and StephenIf you’re a fan of television you may know that David Letterman is retiring in 2015 and that his replacement is Stephen Colbert! If you’re not at all a fan of television, it’s possible you don’t know Stephen Colbert, who is the two in the one-two punch of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert‘s The Colbert Report.

One thing that makes Colbert stand out is how he plays a character who shares his name. Sort of. Stephen Colbert is a parody person played by Stephen Colbert. The fake is highly conservative, utterly ego-maniacal and massively ignorant. Part of the schtick is that Colbert usually appears in public — even testifying before Congress — as Colbert.

So I’m looking forward to seeing the Colbert behind the Colbert mask!

Colbert’s not the first comedian to use a fake persona. Many will remember Andy Kaufman, who starred as Latka on the TV show Taxi. Kaufman’s stand-up comedy acts were bizarre (to say the least), and he created the fake person Tony Clifton. (His TV career began on SNL, but he became famous on Taxi.)

Jack BennyStepping into the Way Back machine, some may recall how Jack Benny had a stage persona. He pretended to be a major cheapskate.

The classic Benny short skit involved a mugger accosting Benny at gunpoint. “Your money or your life!” demands the crook. Benny just stands there. The robber gets more aggressive, waving his gun in Benny’s face he again demands, “Your money or your life!! What’s it going to be??”

Benny finally responds, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”

The thing about Jack Benny was that everyone who actually knew the man loved him and knew him as a kind and generous soul. His stage persona was just that: a stage persona, a well-known pretense.

Andy Kaufman, on the other hand… was a bit of a different fish. (People who were close to him say he was a consummate professional fully aware of what he was doing. From the public’s view, he was definitely…  unique!) There’s an okay movie about his life: Man on the Moon, with Jim Carrey as Kaufman, and while the physical resemblance is downright eerie, Carrey’s acting job is amazing. It’s one of those movies that shows you what a good actor he really is.

Foster Brooks(Another old-timer with a stage character was Foster Brooks, who portrayed a drunk man — an alcoholic, really. Many would consider his act inappropriate these days, but he was very funny in those gentler, more ignorant, times. Red Skelton and Lucille Ball also both had very funny routines involving drunkenness. Those bits might be frowned upon these days, too.)

There is also the case of the infamous Howard Stern, radio “shock jock.” I was a fan for a while, but I was never quite sure how to take him. Was he serious, or was he playing a caricature intended for mocking? Was he highlighting certain ugly aspects of society… or was he just leveraging them for his own success?

And on some level, that’s a concern I have about Stephen Colbert.

Not that he’s actually a right-wing nut job (clearly he’s not), but I sometimes wonder how much of that massive ego is truly pretend anymore. Fame has a way of getting under the skin, and the way he seems to need to perform with so many of his musical guests makes me wonder sometimes.

SColbert 1To be fair, it’s equally possible he’s just excited to have those musical guests and blown away by the chance to perform with them. (Part of me responds: Perhaps, but it’s not a good choice and shifts focus from his guest to him, which I find distracting.)

And — full disclosure — I’m not a full-on fan of the show, so take this all with a grain of salt. I think the reality is that Colbert is a comic genius, but just not one I can fully appreciate.

Pretty much the same view I have of Jerry Seinfeld. (On the other hand, the reason I’m not a full-on fan is because of my perceptions, so… [shrug] whatever. And don’t get me wrong, I really do like the show… it’s just that some aspects of it irritate me and get in the way of my enjoyment.)

Another example of something I find irritating about The Colbert Report is the interview, which is frequently — due to the clowning around — a complete waste of a segment in my eyes. I’ve begun to suspect that the seriousness of the interview is somewhat correlated with Colbert’s opinion of the guest. With guests he clearly reveres, there is a decent chance of a serious interview.


“Truthiness” is a great wørd!

What annoys me in particular is how he starts from his desk, announces the guest and then does one of several canned varieties of prancing ego-dance over to the interview table. (Compare this to the low-key, level-headed way Jon Stewart does it. A simple introduction, a walk-on, sit-down and go.)

Or the way every show begins with the audience chanting, “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” Or the almost cult-like sense of the “Colbert Nation” and the “Colbert Bump.”

Or maybe just all the noise. It takes over 60 seconds to get past the chanting and the long applause and cheering at the show’s open. For a show with only 20 minutes of content, that’s a big bite.

SColbert 2Hopefully I’m just seeing a clever and consistent mask. Hopefully someone who has achieved success pretending to be a caricature — even in off-screen public appearances — can drop the mask easily.

Hopefully we’ll all meet the warm and funny Stephen Colbert! (He has already said he will not be playing his character.)

I’ve never been one for the late night shows (too many commercials), but I’ll definitely be watching (at least for a while) Late Show starring Stephen Colbert!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

22 responses to “BB #42: Behind the Mask

  • E.D.

    There is only one person i really, really love on US T.V. and that is Bill Moyers. I only see video clips of his interviews now and again. What a professional and wonderful man he is. Sadly, he is retiring. I shall miss him dreadfully.. I am not familiar with the others, due to living abroad. I hate Fox news.. I hate all the t .v. stations, and that is all of them, owned by the big corps. Now, I only watch RT – I love Max Keizer or is it Kiezer? I am not good with names.. eve

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Moyers is definitely one of the good ones. I long for the likes of Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and Tim Russert and Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer (at least the last two are still around). Brian Williams is okay, too, but for the most part it’s really hard to get good news broadcasting in the USA. Now it’s all about points of view and the latest, latest, latest!

      Sadly, I don’t seem to live in that world anymore. Serious, analytical news programs rarely get any traction with the public at large (and what a pity that is). No doubt Edward R. Murrow is spinning madly in his grave. O_o

      I gave up on Fox ages ago (used to watch them to see what the “other side” was saying, but they turn my stomach so much now that I can’t abide watching). MSNBC seems to be just the “anti-Fox” — just as rabidly pro-left as Fox is pro-right (a rabid fox… should be shot on sight). And CNN is brain-dead useless — just fluff and nonsense.

  • dianasschwenk

    I love Jon Stewart! Colbert…meh – not so sure. Hey did Dean Martin pretend to be a drunk, or was he really one?

    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Cool, great! I sometimes feel like I’m the only one. Colbert seems to be the bigger hit show and personality, but Jon is tops with me by quite a stretch.

      I’m don’t know much about Martin and the other rat pack guys, but I’ve always had the impression Martin’s reputation as a drinker was over-blown and part of his image.

      • dianasschwenk

        My family and I often discussed Dean’s drunkenness and felt it was mostly an act. I mean how could someone that drunk be able to continue so long without screwing it up totally?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        There are functional drinkers and drug users (especially in the arts where people are more tolerant of those behaviors so long as you produce), but yeah, I think you’re right. Anyone with a serious problem… it usually shows up sooner or later. History provides a lot of examples… Amy Winehouse is a fairly recent one, but there are so many others. As far as I know, Martin lived a long and productive life.

  • bronxboy55

    My younger brother used to perform parts of Monty Python skits for me, and I’d always laugh my head off. But then when I watched the actual show, I didn’t like it as much. Same thing occurs now when people talk about Seinfeld or whatever the latest funniest-show-ever happens to be. I’m always disappointed. I don’t even watch CNN anymore, because all of the smart newscasters are retired or dead. Please advise.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Humor is extremely particular to the individual, I think, and it seems impossible to predict what any one person will find funny. Ask any comedian: comedy is hard! I really do think there is a strong element of luck to any “comedy hit.”

      I’d actually planned to write more about Jerry Seinfeld, but I realized it’s worth its own article. I have very high regard for Jerry Seinfeld’s comic acumen and skill, but his humor often disappoints me personally (for reasons I need an article to explain properly). For that matter, loved and respected the Seinfeld show, but hated all the characters, which created a weird dissonance, because I usually only watch shows with characters I want to know. I wouldn’t have let a single one of those Seinfeld characters anywhere near me!

      Let me ask you this: what comedy do you find funny and not disappointing?

      As for news, I don’t really know what to tell you. We now live in a world that is almost entirely smoke and mirrors when it comes to the affairs of the world. Everyone and everything wears a mask, and more and more life seems all about the masks and not what’s behind them. (Ooh! How’s that for tying it back to the blog topic! 😀 )

      Newspapers and paper magazines are moribund and serious news reporting is almost a memory. The world turns on Tweets and Instagrams now. I’ve been considering changing this blog’s theme and just posting pictures of meals I’m eating. Chili con carne… Burritos con carne… Pizza con carne…

      It’s very disconcerting to compare what’s happening today with what happened in ancient Rome (or several other major long gone civilizations) just before it fell. The parallels are downright… eerie!

  • reocochran

    I think being witty and intelligent is helpful to comedy. (Carlin was great with this and his perspective would make you think about things, too. Simple things, like ants on a sidewalk, etc.) I think bringing real life situations into comedy helps, too. (Cosby was great with this) I really liked Jim Carrey in the movie, “The Majestic,” and felt he showed great acting skills. The one where I am not remembering the title, with his erasing his memory, but not wanting to really erase the love in his life, Jim Carrey is great in this one, too.

    I like comedy that doesn’t rely on silly stuff, but Monty Python and the Holy Grail can get me chuckling with the guys who are using coconuts to imitate the horses’ sounds! I liked Seinfeld, but it disturbed me a lot to see one of the main friends being a little racist in real life, another being quite irritating, but is actually a really nice man… I guess I would say I like Jon Stewart better than Colbert, but will give him a chance.

    I love Mindy Kaling, her show if funny, due to her being able to poke fun at weight, her being Indian descent and the jokes are not cruel or mean. I liked “30 Rock,” will miss it. “Big Bang Theory,” usually is great and still watch “The Middle.”

    Drinking and drugs used to be so funny, think Cheech and Chong or like you mentioned, Dean Martin, Crazy Guggenheim or Foster Brooks. I have decided that it is not really as funny, now that I have personally known a few alcoholics. Not sure if that is fair to say… Great post with lots of directions to go with conversation and ramblings. So long for today, I have a “Blast from the Past” 21st annual car show going on, downtown, had to walk a circle of 5 blocks to make it to the bank and the library! Smiles, Robin

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Wow, another vote for Jon Stewart over Stephen Colbert! I had no idea I wasn’t alone in that. It’s so easy to get the impression The Colbert Report is a run-away, Emmy-winning monster smash hit, while The Daily Show is merely outstanding and wonderful.

      I know what you mean about how actor’s personal lives can interfere with enjoying their work. I don’t think I’ll ever watch a Mel Gibson movie again, not even the Lethal Weapon movies, which I used to love. I’m pretty tolerant (I think), but there are lines I don’t like seeing crossed. And it does affect how I feel about a person and their work.

      The Jim Carrey movie you’re thinking of is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I agree, it was a very good film, and he was excellent in it. (As I mentioned to Mr. Boy above, comedy is hard and successful — in other words: good — comedians often make excellent actors. Robin Williams is a great example, and Carrey is another.

      BTW: That movie was written by Charlie Kaufman who also wrote the amazing Being John Malkovich as well as two oddities: Adaptation (Nickolas Cage playing twin brothers, one of whom is supposedly Charlie Kaufman himself) and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (about how game show host Chuck Barris was supposedly a CIA agent). They are all movies worth seeing! (BTW#2: George Clooney directed Confessions!)

      I agree wit and intelligence can create a very tasty kind of comedy. My favorite type of humor is intelligent humor, and my least favorite involves pratfalls, slapstick or stupidity, but there is so much ground between them. (And even really well-done slapstick can hit the spot!) For example, I think the Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?” is one of the funniest pieces of comedy ever. It’s brilliant! And I rank Holy Grail among the funniest movies ever (along with Airplane!).

      Carlin was one of the greatest (and definitely vying for #1), but he’s in such grand company: Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, Steve Allen, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg, Gallagher, Rodney Dangerfield, Sarah Silverman… and so, so many others!

  • reocochran

    Your long list of comedians is outstanding, W.S. I agree with almost all of them! I liked Gracy and George. They were funny, even on the radio!

    I am so glad you liked the “Eternal Sunshine…” and also, reminding me of others by the same screenplay writer. I have seen all of those! I found both “Being John M.” and “Adaptation” to be confusing and a little stranger than I wanted them to be, but loved “Confessions…” the acting was very good in that one!

    I am also glad you liked the Holy Grail movies. The Monty Python Shows were good, once I found a tape of several of their ‘best ones.’

    I will always think the Chevy Chase movies are funny, also, like Steve Martin movies. The last one I saw him in was actually pretty good, for a mainstream one, “It’s Complicated,” with Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. The scenes after Meryl and Steve’s character smoked ‘weed,’ were funny, as well as some of the times Alec was being an idiot. He played ‘foolish’ well, making me laugh out loud!

    I also liked Steve Martin in the remake of the movie, which originally came from our era, “The Out of Towners.” Hey, I just looked him up and did not know that he helped write some of the Smothers Brothers comedy skits for their t.v. show! They were funny, too.

    Well, on a completely UN-funny subject, the Cleveland Indians ‘suck!’ Why did they have to go from 2nd place and become ‘losers?’ There is my petty and immature reaction! Smiles, Robin

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Kaufman does write some weird scripts, I have to admit. Adaptation is probably the one I enjoyed the least, but it does have some very interesting aspects. Outstanding performance by Nickolas Cage, at the very least!

      Steven Martin is one of my very favorites, although it’s been so long since he’s done stand up comedy (remember the arrow through the head and “wild and craaaaazy guy”?), and he’s done so much else (did you know he’s an outstanding banjo player and has put out two banjo albums?), that I don’t think of him as a “comedian.” He wrote and starred in one of my all-time favorite movies — LA Story — and he’s one of the very few Hollywood people I wish I knew.

      Your Indians are still doing better than my Twins!

  • Doobster418

    I am a huge fan of both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I record both shows on my DVR and watch the recordings the next day (since I can’t stay up late enough to watch them when they’re broadcast, I’m sad to say).

    I used to like Stewart better and I’m still a huge Stewart fan, but Colbert has grown on me. He’s just so “out there” and so outrageously funny. I’m really going to miss him (or his persona) when he leaves. I’ll watch him when he takes over for Letterman, at least for a while, but since he will be out of character, and his focus as host will have to be more on his guests than on himself, I’m not sure how well I’ll enjoy him in that role. I will miss him as the #2 guy in the Comedy Central 1-2 punch of Steward and Colbert.

    I have no idea what Comedy Central is going to do about filling his time slot, but it’s going to be tough to replace Colbert. It’s too bad John Oliver moved to HBO…he could have eased into that slot fairly well, I think.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The fact that, as a talk show host (playing himself), the focus has to be more on the guests is a change I’ll be fascinated to watch. As Therese below points out, we have seen glimpses of the man behind the mask. I’ve found that, while I find the mask noisy and obnoxious, I really like the man I’ve seen in those glimpses. One thing that becomes obvious watching him spar with guests is that he really is brilliant!

      I hadn’t really thought about it, but you’re right: it’s going to be tough for Comedy Central to find something anywhere near the level of The Colbert Report to replace it with. I like John Oliver, but I think he’s years away from being at the level of Stewart or Colbert. I’ve been watching his HBO show, and it’s good, but definitely feels like a third-place contender. It is fun having it on HBO where there’s no censorship!

      Thanks for dropping by, reading and commenting!

  • Therese

    I love both SC and JS, and I suspect that we’ve seen the real Colbert when he has to address something really serious. Occasionally he’s broken character on the show when discussing and presenting help for natural disasters and such. And when his mother died last year he opened the show with the most touching, understated, but poignant tribute to her. I do believe this is the real Colbert, and I look forward to his career after “…Report” (But I’ll have to record it too since I’m not up that late! Good luck to Stephen! Glad we’ll still have Jon Stewart, I get more real news from him than all cable and network news combined!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Many surveys that found a surprising number of people get nearly all their news from one, or both, of those shows. One survey even found viewers of The Colbert Report were better informed about current events than non-viewers. Which, on one level, makes it a shame that these shows only produce 21 minutes a day four days a week and take quite a few weeks off during the year.

      You’re right! We have seen glimpses of the real Stephen Colbert, and I found I really like that guy. It’s also funny to watch him when something happens that almost cracks him up — you see the real Colbert peeking through (and trying really hard to not crack up) then. I got a huge kick when he was talking to … was it Pat Benatar? … and she called him on flirting with her… I think she must have been right, since it was the closest I’ve seen him to tongue-tied. XD

      • Therese

        Hi Wyrd — I also remember when Jane Fonda sat on his lap–he almost totally lost it! Thanks for your reply!

        As to the news, yeah, sometime I think cable and the networks would benefit from hiring the writers from TDS and CR! I especially appreciate how on these shows always find politicians backtracking or totally reversing their positions through older interviews or video that the networks forget about. Or how both Republicans and Dems will totally condemn an action by their opponent but praise the very same action if done by someone on their ticket. Washington, heck, all politics, is filled with hypocrites. TDS and CR have showcased this to an art! I enjoy your blog, Thanks.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        If there was one thing I wish “real” news shows did a lot more of, it’s calling their guests on obvious lies and bullshit. The problem seems to be that most of these shows depend on having guest talking heads, and if they made a practice of shooting down the BS, I suppose they’d get fewer willing to appear. (But I’m not sure that’s a bad thing… evolution in action… it could have the effect of raising the bar on the quality of talking heads.)

        “Fair and balanced” these days seems to mean giving each side a few minutes of screen time to spout whatever and then going to commercial and then coming back to a whole new segment. There’s no analysis, no thought, and that’s one thing that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have brought to the table. Very possibly it’s been a key part of their success (or maybe it’s the comedy 🙂 ).

        Glad you like the blog!

  • drapersmeadow4

    John Stewart all the way – any day. I once bought an Xmas cd of Stephen Colberts and it was awful, so bad that we almost stopped watching it…can’t seem to fully appreciate his brand of humor. ~Karen~

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Another vote for Jon! I love it!! What, if I may ask, made the Christmas CD so awful? (I have half a suspicion it was due to being too much about Stephen rather than Christmas?)

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Welcome to the blog!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s a glimpse of the real Stephen Colbert from an appearance on Meet The Press (bonus: includes the inestimable Tim Russert):

  • Wyrd Smythe

    And here’s David Letterman announcing his retirement:

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