In the coming days and weeks, much will be written about the cultural impact of The Colbert Report. From tapping into the meta world we live in, to the awe we all share that one performer could pull off the same character nightly for almost a decade without it getting stale. Needless to say, what Colbert and his team have achieved is beyond reproach. Yet in my opinion, the single greatest achievement of his show was bringing religion and faith in to comedy in such a fun, sincere way. Instead of tearing it down, he celebrated it and wore his own beliefs on his sleeve, even under the guise of his character. His absence from late night for the next few months leaves us missing not just great comic genius but a much needed discussion about the power of faith in our media landscape.
It’s not news that he is a man who doesn’t hide his faith. Still, as the show wraps up its run, a look back at what a remarkable achievement all of this has been is worthwhile.
Religion has for a very long time been a moving target for comedy, often as a sign of people’s lack of intelligence. Comedians from Bill Maher to George Carlin have had an open disdain for what they viewed as the power of magical thinking and how it would cloud people from the truth. Oftentimes they argued that religion itself was the very cause of most of human suffering and opined for a world that would just wise up.
The Colbert Report’s chief mission, much like The Daily Show’s, is to expose truths within our society’s machinations (and make us laugh, obviously). Each night, they attempt to pull the curtain back to reveal that the all powerful Oz is just a man with special effects and a megaphone. Whereas most comedians go with the easy joke that religion is BS, that God is another version of this Oz to control the masses, Colbert wants us to look harder and realize that it’s the message and not the megaphone that matters.
What Mr. Colbert tapped into at a very young age is that one can be both a skeptic and a man of faith at the same time. Much of this he has credited with him upbringing, which included parents who were religiously devout but also believed in intellectualism. That faith was greatly tested when Colbert’s family suffered many tragedies, but it never wavered completely and Colbert came out the other side as a man not afraid to show it. Indeed, when he chooses to, Colbert has been an adamant defender of his faith. When his guest Bart Ehrman takes Colbert on in a philosophical debate about divinity, for example, Colbert is more than up to the task quoting scripture right back at him.
Or when another guest comes on and makes a statement that offends those beliefs, Colbert seems to drop his persona a moment and go full-on preacher on him. Look at this exchange: “Had God not created hell, then evil would not exist,” to which Colbert responds, “Hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love – which is what hell is. Removing yourself from God’s love. You send yourself to hell. God does not send you there.” Whether you share in his beliefs or not, the simple fact that a discussion about God, heaven, hell and divinity is being had and that it takes a comedian to be leading this debate speak volumes.
Better still, Colbert has put himself in the shoes of other people, even if only to gain a better understanding and empathy toward them. Many years ago, during his “Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando” series of shows, Stephen actually brought his show to the soldiers in the hopes of both lifting their spirits and on some level, keeping them in the national spotlight. Far too often, our wars and battles can feel like distant headlines, fought by brave if anonymous citizens.
Just as audacious, Colbert took to a very different combat zone (Washington DC) many times to speak on behalf of migrant worker’s rights, to tear down those in high office for hypocrisies to their faces, or to demonstrate the internal workings of a shadowy money donation campaign known as a SuperPAC by creating one of his own. Colbert demonstrated the deeply held belief that the least of us are those ones who must be championed hardest. Those in power would do well to take note.
The persona Colbert plays is supposed to be a true-believer Christian on the religious right who goes on faith above fact and yet wonderfully, he is able to seamlessly pivot to pointed criticisms of this sort of blind or misused dogma. By constantly pointing out how those who trumpet that they “Love Jesus” tend to act in the most bigoted ways, he makes the case for cleansing religion of those who use it to their own ends. The layers of satire he is able to enact by simply repeating much of what a politician or public figure claims in the name of faith and then being articulate and well versed in scripture enough to cut through the fat make for a potent weapon indeed. A prime example happened early in the show’s run as he interviewed a Congressman who was using the Ten Commandments as a means of political capital but could only name… three.
There was always a general decency at his core, especially in the moments when the real man broke out, be it when he geeked out over a guest or just flubbed a camera read. That sincerity is very real and the key to not appearing sanctimonious. This is a man who practices what he preaches with a knowing wink.
Being funny about it certainly helps. Everything from his “This Week In God” segments on The Daily Show to his recurring chats with the pastor of his show show that faith and God are always ripe for the picking, especially when it comes to the humans behind it all. How many other shows even have a resident pastor, and one who can both talk honestly and crack jokes about their shared faith? That is part of the very real charm the Report always had. It was obviously crafted from a place of heart and truth, even amidst the “Truthiness” it boasted about.
Many years ago, I worked as an intern at The Daily Show. It was among the happiest achievements of my young life to that point. I was more than a bit star-struck to be in a space among so many people I respected and admit to being tongue-tied and feeling unworthy in such company. One afternoon, Stephen Colbert came in to the office. His show was about to premiere so he hadn’t spent much time in our studio. As he walked past me at my cubicle, he stopped and said, “You’re a new face, what’s your name?” I didn’t know what to really say, so I replied, “Oh, I’m just an intern.”
Colbert looked at me a moment and then said: “Just an intern? Hey, look, everybody starts somewhere. I was just an understudy at one point, but that’s just a point in time. It’s not about where you are now, or even where you hope to go, it’s who you are that matters. I’m Stephen, who are you?” I introduced myself and we shook hands. “Don’t let your place in the world dictate who you are to anyone. We all have the same merit.” Then he was gone, but his words lingered.
Those were the words of a man who has been a Sunday school teacher, who didn’t want to let his children watch the show since he feared they’d find their father insincere. The words of a hip pastor who is interested not in restoring faith in a religion as much as faith in each other. With each joke, sketch or genuine moment he has shared with us, consider that faith repaired, sir. Godspeed to you, Stephen Colbert, and to everyone who has helped you craft such a masterpiece of comedic, and spiritual genius.
Devin Klos is an actor and writer based in NY. You can follow his blog/podcast at Iworkinproduction.com and on twitter at @Devinklosprod