Q&A with Sophia A. McClennen the author of 'Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy'

In her book Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy, which recently came out in paperback, Penn State University professor Sophia A. McClennen argues that Stephen Colbert has paved a new path of political participation. 

In an interview with The Hill, she discusses Colbert’s charisma and credits the show’s “Better Know a District” segment for providing more public exposure to the House of Representatives.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book on Stephen Colbert?

The turning point for me was watching his White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner performance in 2006 … I was blown away by how brilliant it was. I started watching the show and saw that there are many aspects to it that are ripe for cultural critique.

Q: What’s the reception been like among fellow academics?

The reception was mixed. The hip people thought it was the coolest thing and wished they’d thought of it first. The less cool people, shall we say, sort of scratched their heads.

I’m fortunate because I’m at the stage of my career that, let’s put it bluntly, I don’t really care what others think. I really wanted to write this book … and I think what [Colbert’s] done for democracy is positive and productive 

Q: There’s a line on the back cover that says your book isn’t authorized or endorsed by Colbert or Comedy Central. Did you attempt to speak to him for your research?

I was in contact with Colbert’s agent and his publicist and his assistant. I sent the proposal to them. I was trying to meet him because I was hoping to talk to him about the actual art of his satire, which I don’t think he gets asked about — the process of writing the script and just the creative side of it.

I couldn’t get to them because he’s just insanely busy, but the good news is they were certainly aware of the project. I went to the show and the folks on the staff knew I was there.

Q: Why do you think he appeals to a bipartisan audience?

I think what happens is that this has more to do [with] how gracefully Colbert takes on the [Bill] O’Reilly-type pundit persona. It’s often the case that you really can’t see the satire. He’s just performing so well that the wink isn’t as obvious. If you’re someone who likes Glenn Beck, and you see Colbert perform, you’re used to hearing those same things, and then when Colbert says it, it doesn’t really register as satire.

And Colbert’s just so charismatic, too, right? You’d be crazy not to want to hang out with him. He can say these things with a great smile. He doesn’t have that kind of a harsh edge. 

Q: It’s been six years since House leaders discouraged lawmakers from going on his segment “Better Know a District.” Do you think it’s still a “dangerous” thing for members to do?

The case that was really interesting was the [former Rep. Robert] Wexler [D-Fla.] case, because that bit was so obvious. Colbert sets it up, saying, “What’s the one thing you could say that would get you to lose your election?” The whole bit was so obviously crazy. Then it was the next morning, and it was actually the morning shows showing it without the lead-in. Colbert just slammed those morning shows. 

One of the things that you have to ask is, if these politicians appear on Colbert and they are mocked, can the audience get that that’s the whole purpose of this? What we don’t know — you don’t know what the media is going to do with the clips once they’re available. 

Arguably, “Better Know a District” brought attention on the House when not many people would otherwise pay attention to the House. The bigger picture is that he was doing something very useful for our democracy, because the House is a big part of our government, and maybe we ought to pay more attention to it.

Q: What member of Congress would you like to see go on his show?

I’ve loved the ones I’ve seen. All of them, in fact, I think are so phenomenal. My guess is really that we could benefit from seeing all of these people on the segment. It’d be fabulous if we could get that segment going again. 

Q: Come November, the political landscape in Washington is going to change. Does this affect Colbert’s influence, in your opinion?

It’s probably been more interesting to see how it’s gone the other way. People wondered if, with [President] Obama being elected in 2008, would folks like Colbert and Jon Stewart not have enough material? That wasn’t true.

If anything, if it becomes the case that Obama becomes a one-term president, I think we’ll see Stewart and Colbert being a breath of fresh air.

Q: Do you see his star fading or rising higher in the future? What does he have to do to stay relevant and popular?

I think that the biggest question is how long he’ll have the stamina to do what he’s doing, because this is a pretty exhausting bit. He’s on camera pretty much the entire half-hour, and he doesn’t have other talent on his show to help support him and give him a break. 

What he has been fairly effective at doing is finding new angles to breathe new energy into the show. His super-PAC was a tremendous move on a lot of levels. It got him a lot of attention. 

I think what’s going to make Colbert continue to be interesting is the way he’s reaching out to the youth culture. I think he’s been incredibly effective at that, better than any other satirist in the country.

There’s this balance on his show between “Let’s have fun” and “Let’s do something.” And that’s why I think the show is really powerful for democracy. He’s showing people that you can be politically active, but you don’t have to be an aggressive jerk … This is a form of political participation that makes political participation enjoyable. He’s consistently trying to get his audience to do more than just watch the show. That’s pretty amazing, and that’s where his long-term impact is.