Saturday, January 28, 2006

Colbert and God

Here is a fascinating post on Stephen Colbert and the dissonance, or tension, or convergence, between comedy and religion (not Pat Robertson, that is, or the one about the Pope, the Rabbi, and Bill Clinton in a rowboat, but the way in which a religious sensibility may influence comedy):
Speaking of Colbert and religion: Did you see his show on Thursday, with Paul Begala as the guest? Begala is going on about how he needed to teach Bill Clinton how to get his ideas across in short, simple form for the news. Begala describes how he made his point to Bill Clinton, who was bellyaching about how his wonky policies couldn't be condensed into sound bites. Begala reached in his back pocket and pulled out a copy of the New Testament that he's been carrying since 1979. At this point on the show, Begala actually pulls out the tattered, taped-together book and says he highlighted John 3:16 and handed it to Clinton. Begala hands the opened book to Colbert, points to the verse, tells Colbert to read it, and says he's going to time him to prove -- as he proved to Clinton -- how much can be said in 5 seconds. Colbert takes a slight glance at the book, flips it shut, looks straight at Begala and says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that those who believe in him shall not die but have eternal life." Begala says, triumphantly, "Four and a half seconds!" And Colbert says "That's the Christian sound bite."
I was struck by this moment on the show. The interview was going very well -- Begala speaking crisply (about speaking crisply) and Colbert slipping in perfect zingers. And then Begala wants to use the New Testament to prove a point about how he got through to Clinton. I felt that, reciting the verse, Colbert was not being the Colbert Report character but that his own religion was dictating that he had to say the verse as a demonstration of his own faith, and it wasn't right to fool around with that. I can't say why I feel so sure. The Colbert character would, I think, have been more pleased with himself to know the verse. You'd have felt the preen. I experienced this moment as a startling statement of faith, the kind of thing you don't normally see on TV.
The real Colbert, whom we can only catch glimpses of on TV behind his mask of absurdist pomposity, is a thoughtful and interesting person. He is a practicing Catholic. His father died in a plane crash. You get the sense that the facts of his life and personal history temper his comedy a bit, and for the better. He isn't impishly mining the zeitgeist like his colleague Jon Stewart, at least not in the same way; there's something a little more complex going on.