Tip of the Hat to Stephen Colbert

Sitting on the couch last night, EA and I realized that we have probably watched The Colbert Report more than any other television show in our lives. It debuted the same year that we got married and of its 1,400-plus episodes, I would estimate we have seen about a thousand of them. So we're kind of bummed that Report is ending its run this week. Bummed might even be putting it lightly. I think EA used the word "sad" last night and I have to agree.

I don't want to speak for EA, but I think the reason that The Colbert Report means so much to me is that it helped me make sense of who I am in the context of where I live. Let me explain. Like Stephen Colbert, I am a product of South Carolina. Also like (the real) Colbert, I have beliefs that are out of step with the majority of my fellow Sandlappers. Yet the trouble is many in the Palmetto State, or at least the most vocal faction, believe that the Christian faith goes hand in hand with the GOP platform. You can't be a good Christian and buck against the conservative status quo.

As I went through college and into my 20s, that put me in an odd position. I do not consider myself a Democrat, but there was a lot within the Republican party that was deeply troubling to me. And the reason most of those things were troubling was actually because of my faith. They are things about which I could be wrong, but they are my convictions and beliefs nonetheless. In my social context, I felt like an anomaly.

Along comes Colbert: a fellow South Carolinian who tackled these issues in brilliantly satirical ways which made me laugh but also think about what was going on in the world. For good reason, there is always talk about the blurred line between Stephen Colbert the Character and Stephen Colbert the Actual Person. But fairly early on, I could tell that faith was hugely important to the real individual.

You could see when his faith bled over into the show. I remember an episode where a Stanford professor suggested that God created hell and thus evil. Colbert flew into this theological flurry that just completely upended this professor's argument and it completely caught the guy off guard. The punctuation to that conversation probably made me laugh harder than I ever had.

It was remarkable how quickly he could pivot from the profane to the sacred and not lose what is a largely "secular" crowd (I put that in quotes because I hate drawing those distinctions). There would be these brief moments in which he made these incredibly profound statements about how Christians should live except it was stated in this funhouse mirror kind of way.

The following clip is a perfect example. It starts off as a bit that can seem fairly partisan and weaves through a joke about Ben Franklin predilection for prostitutes. It's funny, incisive, and equal parts juvenile and intelligent, but it all builds to this devastatingly challenging moment.

I remember watching that episode and I was completely blown away. This was on Comedy Central. It probably preceded an episode of South Park or Crank Yankers. What he said was prophetic. Where else on TV were you going to hear something like that? Where in the church were you going to hear that?

That is why I have so much admiration for Stephen Colbert. I don't agree with him on close to everything. But he is a brilliant, hilarious individual who does not shy from his faith; in fact he often employs that faith in brilliant, hilarious, and subversive ways. He doesn't preach (actually, he does, but his purposes are to highlight the fallacies of preaching at people) and he doesn't talk about it all the time. But you could not have been a fan of The Colbert Report and been ignorant to the fact that he actually believed this stuff about Jesus. He is not perfect. I disagree with him on things and how he says things sometimes, but I cannot deny that he loves God.

That has helped me tremendously. It helped me navigate this weird place in which my faith and my convictions made me feel like I did not have a home. In a way, it is helping me as I try to find my voice. It won't sound like Colbert or "Colbert," but I hope that I will be uncompromising in the way that he seemed to be. 

We are going to miss The Colbert Report. It is still hilarious after nine years, one of the smartest shows on TV, and it is amazing to watch Colbert as a performer. To be this character who is different from you, to interview people, and filter your actual response through this character's perspective so quickly is an amazing feat of acting. It is also one of the few places where you will find academics, theologians, politicians, and diplomats interviewed alongside the usual fare of movie stars.

But I am going to miss moments like that clip above the most. I hope that he finds ways to integrate his unique take on faith when he takes over The Late Show. I hope he finds ways to reinvent the late night format; that the broader audience won't dull what made Report so sharp. Yet I look forward to seeing what he does next. As this era closes, a tip of my hat to Stephen Colbert. Even though some may not admit it, you've done South Carolina and, more importantly, your faith proud.

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