Stephen Colbert: New Character, But Unchanged Ideology

truthinessIn contemporary society, the phenomenon of stardom plays a large and always-present role. It might be considered unusual to run into someone who does not have a favorite movie star, music performer, or television personality. Our society is saturated by countless forms of media, and we have become obsessed with the individuals that appear within them. Of course, it is no surprise to most people that the people we see on the screen are different than the real people who they represent. Instead, stars are merely an artificial construction created through the culmination of the effort by studios, the actors themselves, and society at large. Film theorist Richard Dyer was one of the first to analyze aspects of stardom and the effect they have on society. These artificial constructions, the star personas, represent the public image of the star and how they are generally viewed. For instance, Marilyn Monroe is associated with sexuality, Rock Hudson with masculinity, and Donald Trump with over-the-top business antics. These stars are almost inseparable with their personas, and might even be unrecognizable if they were presented differently. However, it is interesting to consider what might happen if a star were to try to redefine themselves and reconstruct their persona. Stars are defined almost exclusively by their persona, so any attempt to adopt an entirely new persona calls into question the very nature of stardom as a whole.

Regardless of if a star can successfully change their persona, the fact remains that the phenomenon of stardom is closely related to culture that they exist within. Simply put, stars are cultural products and are the embodiment of ideologies. (Dyer 2) When discussing the general notion of stardom, Dyer continually uses the example of capitalism—production and consumption—as ideologies that stars embody. The neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci described these types of ideologies even further, calling them cultural hegemonies. (Gramsci) For him, a hegemony is a dominant ideology that permeates so widely throughout culture that it exists largely unnoticed, and are accepts simply as “just the way things are.” Gramsci argues that hegemonies stay in power if they go unnoticed. Contemporary examples of hegemonies could include U.S. politics, including the two-party system, and the deeply-held nature of political beliefs. Stars are an ideal vehicle for perpetuating hegemonies such as these because they occupy several different areas of culture, and are seen by many members of the public at large. Even if a star is able to successfully change their persona, such a change is ultimately insignificant because the underlying ideologies that the star embodies remain unchanged.

There are many stars that could serve as examples of this phenomenon, and much academic work has been done examining the relation of stars and various ideologies. However, this paper aims to examine a star’s attempt to change his or her own persona, and the effect that it might have on their underlying ideologies. Stephen Colbert, who is a star from his television appearances, makes for an ideal case study especially in terms of his transition from hosting The Colbert Report on Comedy Central to hosting The Late Show on CBS. He hosted his final episode of The Colbert Report on December 18, 2014, and premiered on The Late Show on September 8, 2015. During this interim, there was significant speculation as to how Colbert’s star persona would be portrayed on the new show, to the point that Stephen Colbert specifically announced that he would not appear “in character” in the new CBS show. (Zuckerman) Despite the uncertainty over what version of the Colbert star would appear, it was always a given that Colbert would still be involved in the propagation of certain ideologies. Cultural theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno describe this concept in their essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. They argue that the primary export of the entertainment industry and of mass media is no the movies, music, and TV shows that they produce but instead the hegemonies that they promote. (Adorno and Horkheimer) By extension, stars are yet another product that the Culture Industry produces. Stars are important not because of the people they represent or the characters they play, but for the ideologies they carry. In her book on Lady Gaga, Amber Davisson reaffirms that “stars themselves do now lack ideological significance,” which indicates that the decades-old theories of Dyer, Gramsci, Horkheimer, Adorno and others still applies to contemporary notions of stardom. (Davisson 4) Stephen Colbert is the epitome of this relationship between stardom and ideology; on both of his shows, he embodies the same ideologies, which means that no matter what outwardly changes he makes in appearance, his star persona is unchanged from one show to another.

During his time hosting The Colbert Report, Colbert’s star persona and performance portrayed him as a parody of traditional cable news political pundits. The show was designed in such a way as to mimic the hegemony of typical cable news shows. For instance, Colbert’s set featured him sitting at a desk, with a stack of papers in front of him. The set was decorated with red and blue, with graphics appearing over his shoulder as he presented various topics. (Colbert, Truthines) These However, his actual performance was different than traditional political pundits and was unique to Colbert. His way of speaking was loud, abrasive, and aggressive. He frequently used the word “nation” to refer to his audience—both within the studio and on TV, which characterized him as talking at the audience and not necessarily with them.

On his first episode, Colbert introduced the term “truthiness,” which came to define not just his show, but his star performance as well. He specifically stated that Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news. At you.” (Colbert, Truthines) Because this appeared in his first episode, it essentially serves as an assertion of what his entire show would be about—namely distilling politics down to a simple form and telling the audience what to think, or in this case, feel. Though it appeared more than 50 years later, Colbert’s performance echoes what Horkheimer and Adorno wrote about the Culture Industry—that “The spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product prescribes each reaction…through signals. Any logical connection presupposing mental capacity is scrupulously avoided.” (61) In this segment, Colbert specifically tells his viewers that he will tell them exactly what to think throughout his show, which is a clear confession of the ideological purposes that his stardom serves. Namely, Colbert’s stardom reasserts the hegemony of U.S. politics and the two-party system. His performance erases any nuance between conservatives and liberals and forces the audience to identify with one of those two categories. Colbert encourages the audience to view their political views in a similar manner as religion—not something to be thought about rationally, but as a deeply held personal belief that cannot be challenged. This ideology is encapsulated within the star construction of Stephen Colbert and presented to the audience.

trumpinessColbert’s embodiment and performance of these political ideologies is especially effective because it is effective at reaching a wide array of audiences. Viewers of The Colbert Report saw in it what they wanted to see; Liberals saw it as over the top satire, and conservatives often read it as genuine political commentary. (LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam) This universality of Colbert’s performance on The Colbert Report is indicative of stardom in general. (Dyer) Stars are for everyone and the ideologies that they embody serve to strengthen the hegemonies that exist within society at large. The ideologies that Colbert, the star, portrays remain in power because they are presented in a manner that they can be accepted by anyone.

Luis Althusser, another cultural theorist, describes this process in his essay on Ideological State Apparatuses. He argues that an ideology can retain its dominance if it can be presented as and accepted as something that everyone accepts. (Althusser, Balibar, and Bidet) Ideologies are presented to a subject, who is then “interpellated” and hailed to join it, which is exactly what Colbert’s stardom does to his viewers and their political beliefs. His loud and abrasive performance are merely the surface-level of Stephen Colbert the star; the true effect of his stardom is the political ideologies he promotes.

Therefore, it is effectively irrelevant if Colbert appears differently in his performance on CBS’ The Late Show. Though it may seem that he has adopted a new star persona, if the underlying ideologies that he propagates are unchanged, then Colbert is effectively the same star as before. On the final episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert acted out the end of Stephen Colbert, and supposedly the end of his previous star persona as well. He claims to have “won” television and leaves the show by flying away with Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, and Alex Trebek. (Colbert, Season 11, Ep. 40) Following this supposed end of his previous persona and that fact that he seems to be different, Colbert is presented on The Late Show as being an entirely new star persona. One example of this is a difference in his performance on the show. Rather than using the phrase “nation” to talk at the audience, he begins each show talking with the audience and asking “how’s everybody doing?” The Late Show Additionally, on his first episode he included a segment in which he asked “Who Am Me?” and took a personality test to reveal the “real” Stephen Colbert. (Colbert, Who Is Stephen Colbert?) Of course, this very notion of a “real” Stephen Colbert even existing is inaccurate, as stars by definition are illusions; it impossible for a real Colbert to appear on his show. (Dyer) And even though his outward appearance on his new show are different, Colbert’s star persona is effectively the same as the one that appeared on The Colbert Report because the underlying ideologies that he embodies are the same.

On The Late Show, Colbert embodies ideologies that reinforce the hegemony of U.S. politics. Specifically, his performance perpetuates the polarization of political ideals and that those politics are akin to religious beliefs in how tightly they should be held. When discussing the Republican primaries in the 2016 presidential election, The Late Show featured a segment about the word “Trumpiness.” (Colbert, Trumpiness) In this, he directly referenced The Colbert Report from 11 years earlier and presented again the same ideologies. In the segment, he directly compared Donald Trump’s supporters with supporters of Bernie Sanders by asserting that each candidates’ followers didn’t just agree with their messages, but deeply believed them as well. This representation has two effects: first, it posits that there are only two potential political parties—democrats or republicans. Second, it underscores that political beliefs should be deeply held by an individual, much like a religion. In other words, conservatives and liberals are not actually that different, at least in terms of how their members choose to follow them. Or as Horkheimer and Adorno describe it, “even the aesthetic manifestation of political opposites proclaim the same inflexible rhythm.” (41) Colbert has only been hosting The Late Show for a few years now, so it is unclear whether or not his performance will evolve to look completely different from that of The Colbert Report. However, because the ideologies that he perpetuates are unchanged, his outward appearance is irrelevant in determining a change in star persona. Because these ideologies are identical, his star persona did not change.

From his final episode of The Colbert Report in 2014 to his first episode of The Late Show in 2015, Colbert seems to have attempted to take on a new role and new performance. Ultimately, his appearance in his new role may look slightly different from his earlier role, but the effects that he has on his audience are generally the same. Colbert embodies and promotes the same ideologies in both roles. As a product of the Culture Industry, Colbert has the same role in the reinforcement of dominant hegemonies. His shows promote U.S. politics, the two-party system, and the personal nature of political beliefs. Though stars may not be real people, the effects that they have on the world certainly are.



Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks. Ed. Douglas Kellner and Meenakshi Gigi Durham. Second Edition. N.p., 1944. 53–74. Print.

Althusser, Louis, Etienne Balibar, and Jacques Bidet. On The Reproduction Of Capitalism: Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses. Trans. G. M. Goshgarian. London ; New York: Verso, 2014. Print.

Colbert, Stephen. The Colbert Report – Season 11, Ep. 40 – Grimmy – Full Episode. N.p., 2014. Film. The Colbert Report.

—. The Word – Truthiness-The Colbert Report – Video Clip. N.p., 2005. Film. The Colbert Report.

—. The Word: Trumpiness. N.p., 2016. Film. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

—. Who Is Stephen Colbert? N.p., 2015. Film. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Davisson, Amber L. Lady Gaga and the Remaking of Celebrity Culture. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2013. Print.

Dyer, Richard. Stars. New Edition. London: British Film Institute, 1998. Print.

Gramsci, Antonio. “The Concept of ‘Ideology.’” Media And Cultural Studies: KeyWorks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner. Second Edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 1971. 34–37. Print.

LaMarre, Heather L., Kristen D. Landreville, and Michael A. Beam. “The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 14.2 (2009): 212–231. SAGE Journals. Web.

Zuckerman, Esther. “Stephen Colbert Will Take Over for David Letterman.” The Atlantic 10 Apr. 2014. The Atlantic. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.


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