10. Life’s too short to pretend you aren’t religious
Stephen Colbert wears his religion on the outside. And much of the fun he’s so articulately determined to get out of people involves somehow bringing their core beliefs to the surface in spite of their resistance. He’s especially good at prodding people who — this would be a great many of us — appear reluctant to get caught believing in something strongly.
Consider his famous exchange with Bible scholar Bart Ehrman:
Colbert: Do you believe there’s a God?
Ehrman: I’m not sure.
Colbert: Really? So you’re an agnostic?
Ehrman: That’s right.
Stephen: Isn’t that just an atheist without balls?
It’s as if he won’t let anyone get away with appearing dispassionate, because there’s no fun in it, and worse, it doesn’t leave us with anything to really talk about. In Colbert’s universe, it’s all religion all the time.
What is the Colbert persona if not that of the true believer? As he used to sign-off his “This Week in God” segment on The Daily Show, “I’m Stephen Colbert saying: Keep the faith . . . unless it’s heresy.”
9. Stephen Colbert can out-conservative everyone
And this might be why a figure like Rush Limbaugh felt compelled to take to the air to decree that, with Colbert’s hiring, “CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America.” Like many a famous figure (Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan) whose devotion to the living witness of the Roman Catholic communion demands a commitment to human flourishing in the minute particulars (access to food, shelter, healthcare, and a living wage), Colbert turns the brand image of “conservative” — especially Christian conservative — on its head. In terms of communal resources and moral teaching, who’s genuinely interested in conserving what?
This is a profound threat to the false moral jig Limbaugh dances for a living. This fact was nowhere more evident than Colbert’s exchange with Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who co-sponsored a bill requiring the display of the 10 commandments in the House and the Senate arguing that, without them, the nation will lose its sense of direction. “What are the 10 commandments?” Colbert asked. Congressman Westmoreland made it up to three as Colbert held up a finger for each.
As a Sunday School teacher who recites creeds and quotes scripture with and to the likes of Jack White and N.T. Wright, we know he could have helped the allegedly conservative politician out, but he let the clarifying moment speak for itself. I believe we’re in for more of the same.
8. Colbert keeps this commandment: Love Thy Interviewee
For all the threat to a person’s composure an exposure to Colbert can be on camera, there never seems to be a failure of affection on Colbert’s part. If attentiveness is a sacramental practice, we might say Colbert very often finds his guests more interesting than they find themselves. This can make for a heartening sight.
7. Ethical heft
“Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando” marked the first time an American television program was produced in a combat zone. Place alongside it Colbert’s offering of testimony to the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee on behalf of migrant workers, having spent a day working alongside them in the United Farm Workers’ “Take Our Jobs” program (“I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar.”) When asked to explain himself, he observed, “I like talking about people who don’t have any power” and appealed to Jesus’ call to dedicate our energies on behalf of “the least of these.”
In more ways than one, he appears possessed by the provocative conviction — thickly Catholic, to say the least — that politics is liturgy writ large. This has many an implication for a leading figure in the showing business, especially when we see that, as one rumored Roman Catholic observed, all the world’s a stage.
6. Song and dance
Shakespeare’s adage recalls the mad vision of unlikely wholeness that was Colbert’s lip-sync and dance to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which drew in Jimmy Fallon, Henry Kissinger (who called security), and Bryan Cranston (whose dance was his response to Charlie Rose’s question concerning the meaning of Walter White).
When we remember Colbert settling a feud with Barry Manilow by joining him in “I Write the Songs” or singing Christmas carols with Brian Eno and Michael Stipe, possibilities for the new format begin to appear. St. Augustine instructs that when we sing words once, we’ve prayed them twice. We can look forward to Colbert singing and meaning it in ways we have yet to imagine.
5. “Satire is parody that has a point.” — Stephen Colbert
4. We say it again with some firmness: Ethical heft
This isn’t to say David Letterman’s been some kind of lightweight in this department. Way back in the early 21st century, he was that rare popular media personality who managed to hold then-Governor George W. Bush’s track record at a human angle on camera. When Letterman asked him if he believed people vote on impression over substance, Bush responded that he certainly hoped it’s a matter of substance: “After all, I’m for the people.” At this, Letterman casually reared back and initiated a transition: “We make a lot of jokes about you electrocuting people in Texas.”
As Bush grimaced, Letterman posed a question: “Is there a circumstance that you can imagine — have you ever thought about this? — that might change your view on capital punishment?”
Silence. Then: “Well, if the system were unfair, I’d think about it. But . . . you know it’s a serious business . . . I hope you’re not laughing at the expense of victims or people who are put to death.”
Letterman: “Absolutely not.”
Six years later, Colbert would address Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, praising him for his commitment to pursuing “truth unfiltered by rational argument.” We’d never seen anything like it before. (“Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.”) There was no comment from Bush concerning Colbert’s performance, which belongs next to Swift and Twain in the annals of political satire. Colbert’s comment on the evening, however, was devastating: “I had a great time. The president killed. He’s a tough act to follow — at all times.”
3. J.R.R. Tolkien
By the time Colbert takes the “Late Show” helm, we will have been treated to the third and final installment of that video game film series that features Ian McKellen as a character called Gandalf. But we will have only just begun that blissful season of our lives in which CBS late night is commandeered by a man who speaks High Elvish, who revels in explaining the difference between a Balrog and a demon, and who inscribed America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t as follows: “Dear Mitt, use this to become president. Just make me ambassador to Middle Earth.”
2. The Holy Spirit of Joy
That other candidate for Catholic Novelist of the 20th Century (and another Colbert favorite), James Joyce, once observed: “The spirit which proceeds out of truth and beauty is the holy spirit of joy. These are realities and these alone give and sustain life.”
If I’ve ever seen these words born witness to on television, it occurred when Colbert opened an episode by eulogizing his mother, Lorna Colbert. Addressing the camera, he laid it out plainly: “When you watch the show, if you also like me, that’s because of my mom.” She taught him, he explained “to love life without bitterness,” and, with her love and support in mind, he said, he would now proceed to do what she loved watching him do. The intake of breath followed by his donning of the Colbert persona once again is one of the most jarringly righteous, theatrical gestures I’ve ever seen.
Irenaeus of Lyons maintained that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Perhaps there are moments when such a thing is televised.
And the #1 reason we’re glad a Catholic Colbert is taking over Letterman’s “Late Show”: It will be a deep thrill to watch Stephen Colbert play one on TV.
As he put it to us: “We’ll all get to find out how much of him was me.”