When "The Colbert Report" premiered five years ago this week, we didn't quite know what to make of it.
Sure, "The Word" segment, in which Stephen Colbert introduced the semi-neologism "truthiness," carried a certain breezy brilliance. And his parody of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly successfully skewered not only right-wing TV blowhards but the bottomless flow of hot air puffing up cable news talk show outfits of all political persuasions.
Colbert put on a great opening show – daring, different and damn smart – but it felt like a one-shot. His Comedy Central tag team partner, Jon Stewart, had the advantage of being able to riff directly off the news, while Colbert seemed almost trapped in a character whose one dimension was the joke. How could he hope to pull off this act four nights a week?
Well, the truth is Colbert has grown into one of our most formidable satirists, proving both reliable and unpredictable. Those are traits that serve him – and his fans – well as the political and cable news worlds he set out to lampoon in 2005 have plunged into an ongoing volatile mutation.
Five years after the first “Colbert Report,” O'Reilly comes off as the moderate voice of Fox News – a sign of an increasingly polarized age when the network is better known for Tea Party pals Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.
Colbert enjoys a steady stream of new material, but he's also stayed atop the game by constantly challenging his devoted audience (getting them to help him win various naming contests), his guests (pity the lawmakers who submit to “Better Know a District” interviews) – and himself.
An early flash of his brass came in 2006 when Colbert, in character, delivered an in-person mocking of then-President George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents’ dinner, getting more stares at times than laughs. (“I stand by this man, because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares,” Colbert said.)
Last month, he testified before Congress – again in character, and this time under oath – about the plight of migrant workers in a surreal stint that proved just as awkward and controversial.
It was a brave, funny and effective performance. But Colbert risked calling into question his credibility as a comedian by becoming a political participant – an issue that also has come up with his planned Oct. 30th “March to Keep Fear Alive” and Stewart's “Rally to Restore Sanity.” The duel show is literally taking a parody of Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally to the streets of Washington.
NPR spurred a kerfuffle last week by banning its staff from attending as civilians, basically arguing the Stewart-Colbert extravaganza might be perceived as a political rally. While some mocked NPR, the news organization’s stance underscored that the event can’t be easily categorized. Is it a political rally? A comedy show? A meld of both?
Still, Colbert has made it difficult at times to argue against his creative use of his platform. He helped sponsor the U.S. Olympic speedskating team. He’s hawking a line of march-related hats and T-shirts –“ I have a scream” is one slogan – with proceeds going to the Yellow Ribbon Fund, which helps injured veterans.
When he did a week of shows from Iraq last year, Colbert essentially positioned himself as the Bob Hope for the era of comic irony – he supported the troops while mocking the war via his faux hawk persona. He’s kept up the commitment to veterans and their families through charity efforts, and welcomed troops home from Iraq in during two shows last month.
The shows came about a week before the addition to the Oxford American Dictionary of his version of “truthiness,” defined as “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.”
Five years after the first edition of “The Colbert Report,” it’s still a word for our times, when the truth in politics and on cable news is as elusive as it's ever been. The word fits its creator, an ever-evolving satirist, cloaked in a character, whose comic balancing act as he searches for a semblance of veracity remains well worth watching night after night.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.