Colbert, comedy and the cross

Stephen Colbert may not be the most mainstream source for news, but religion news and interviews make a pretty regular appearance on the Colbert Report, more than your average late-night show.

In a segment late last year, he said, “Everyone knows I am the most famous Catholic on television. I am basically the Pope of basic cable.” And, of course, he has a chaplain. A new profile from the New York Times magazine makes you think it might explore this side of Colbert from the way it introduces the comedian.

There used to be just two Stephen Colberts, and they were hard enough to distinguish. The main difference was that one thought the other was an idiot. The idiot Colbert was the one who made a nice paycheck by appearing four times a week on “The Colbert Report” (pronounced in the French fashion, with both t’s silent), the extremely popular fake news show on Comedy Central. The other Colbert, the non-idiot, was the 47-year-old South Carolinian, a practicing Catholic, who lives with his wife and three children in suburban Montclair, N.J., where, according to one of his neighbors, he is “extremely normal.” One of the pleasures of attending a live taping of “The Colbert Report” is watching this Colbert transform himself into a Republican superhero.

The mention that Colbert is a practicing Catholic piqued my interest to continue to read the lengthy profile, thinking the writer might tell us more about the comedian’s faith and how it plays out on his show. It wasn’t until about 3,000 words in or so that reading the piece became worth my time.

In 1974, when Colbert was 10, his father, a doctor, and his brothers Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, died in a plane crash while flying to a prep school in New England. “There’s a common explanation that profound sadness leads to someone’s becoming a comedian, but I’m not sure that’s a proven equation in my case,” he told me. “I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so.” He added, in a tone so humble and sincere that his character would never have used it: “She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”

Of course, the Times isn’t the first to explore Colbert’s faith. But it could still use a few details here and there. As the piece notes, Colbert he testified before Congress about the problem of illegal-immigrant farmworkers, but what the piece doesn’t note is how he cited Matthew 25. What is striking about the above passage in the piece is Colbert’s explicit connection between the tragedy and his faith. The rest of the piece, however, is fairly disappointing on the faith front.

Colbert, who is good at compartmentalization, manages in spite of this exhausting schedule to make time for his family. For some of the writers, the job is more all-consuming. One of them, Opus Moreschi, told me that he solves the problem of how to balance the job and a life by forgoing the life. “Basically, I’ve never had a life except for comedy, so it isn’t that much of a problem,” he said. Yet for all the demands that Colbert puts on his staff members, he is apparently beloved by them. “There are a lot of unhappy people in comedy,” Purcell said, “and sometimes you get a very radioactive vibe. But Stephen has an excellent way of treating people. You should never underestimate the power of good manners.”

So Colbert’s mannerisms can be simply attributed to his polite nature, apparently. Perhaps they are, or perhaps there’s something beneath the manners that compels Colbert to act the way he does. A congresswoman thought to ask Colbert for his motivations on why he takes an interest in immigration issues. Couldn’t a journalist do something similar?

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • http://www.michael-carper.com Michael Carper

    Reading that quote earlier reminded me of another famous Catholic–Mother Teresa.

    Of whose treatment by the media, of course, is more worthy of a book than a blog comment.

  • Jerry

    A congresswoman thought to ask Colbert for his motivations on why he takes an interest in immigration issues. Couldn’t a journalist do something similar?

    Maybe she should be come a journalist instead? That was a very telling couple of sentences.

  • carl jacobs

    “She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us.”

    See, this kind of statement makes me flinch a little. It sounds like he could be viewing the Cross from the point of view of only Moral Exempler. My immediate question is “What does he think was the purpose of the Cross?” It could be a perfectly legitimate statement, or it could be a horrendous distortion. So is he orthodox or not?

    There are many kinds of self-identified Catholics (I can name seven without even trying), and those differences can be hidden by allowing statements to leave implications the speaker did not intend. A man can read the above statement and see either Orthodoxy or Heterodoxy. The difference might depend on nothing more than the assumptions he brings to the article. Trusting to assumptions is a dangerous way to frame a story.

    I don’t trust media descriptions of a person’s faith for this reason. The reader generally can’t get below the surface to the nuance that separates truth from falsehood. Perhaps it is deliberate. Perhaps it is because of space limitations. Perhaps it is because the journalist doesn’t know enough to go looking for the nuance. The result however is the always same.

    carl

  • http://hereisthechurch.wordpress.com Allie

    I would love to see an in-depth look at Colbert’s faith. I watch him sporadically, and there are times when I question some of his orthodoxy, but I’m never sure if that’s him being in character or what. Then I see things like this and am even more intrigued.

    Not that journalists have an easy time on the Godbeat, but Colbert is pretty public about his faith, and I feel like these clips on his show should provide some great catalyst for questions.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Allie,

    That link might be NSFW, but is very funny.

  • Kris D

    The other link of Colbert’s that’s very funny
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oASYa-Wkroc

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    He has a great wit and intelligence. That is obvious. What is also obvious is that his soul is in deep division. His struggle comes out, and this article gives a little glimpse his roots with God. Praying that he will laugh out loud with a new spirit one day.
    David, http://www.RedLetterBelievers.com, “Salt and Light”

  • Mike

    I am sorry about Colbert’s loss of his dad and brothers.

    Unfortunately his show is largely a scandal to the Catholic faith. It seems that he either has a poor understanding of his faith or doesn’t care about it. He definitely has a gift for entertaining people, but it seems he has chosen to use it to bash the very thing that he claims to value.

    I guess anything is OK for many people, as long as it is funny and entertaining, no matter how irreverant and sinful it is.

    Colbert is just giving people what they want – a reason not to believe in Catholicism, the greatest defender of good and truth in the world. He validates their prejudices. On second thought, maybe Steven is not so clever.

  • Lois

    I don’t follow colbert regularly, but I do remember his support of “hope and change” last election. Has his faith helped him retract his support for the president’s support on so many ungodly positions Bo has taken?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    carl jacobs,
    Don’t be too hard on him. My understanding is that there’s nothing wrong with the Moral Exemplar model of atonement, as long as it’s not your only model.

    I’m not a Catholic, so I can’t say whether Colbert’s work constitutes a “scandal” (in the theological definition of the word). However, there is a tradition in Christianity of using satire, grotesque, comedy, irony, etc., to attack hypocrisy/heresy/vice and call Christians back to true Christianity. Bakhtin’s interpretation of Rabelais, the works of Kierkegaard, the whole range of Carnival/Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday traditions, and so on. If there isn’t one already, I’m sure someone’s working on a doctoral dissertation connecting Colbert to these subversive Christian traditions.

  • Suz

    Catholic? My 1st view of Colbert (rock odyssey w/Jack White) was horrible. Knowing ones faith should start with the Ten Commandments – Thou shalt not use thy Lords name in vain. And, using f–k is disgraceful. Pure trash.
    I think he belongs with some of our other fine Catholic reps. I.e. Tony Blair, Newt Gingrich, etc. by their fruits you shall know them.
    Suz

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Hey all, thanks for weighing in. We’re here to discuss journalism — coverage of Colbert’s faith, not his personal faith. Thanks!

  • Lois

    The article is about his faith. He is not a journalist, but an entertainer, who classifies himself as a catholic, but does NOT follow the teachings. He is like Pelosi who calls herself catholic all the while rejecting the teachings of the Church.

  • CLM

    There is no reasonable defense of Colbert’s actions.
    “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)
    Game, set, match.

  • Bob

    He is definitely an entertainer, not always a comedian…sometimes he makes me laugh sometimes I struggle to appreciate his irony, but, he always makes me think and consider what his point of view is.

    He seems to continually point out that a nut-job on the left side of the political spectrum shares a similarity with a nut-job on the right, they are both nut-jobs. His stated regressive conservative stance balanced against statements that seem progressive and liberal, leave me with an impression of a secret moderate independent who occasionally makes me laugh, a refreshing point of view after a hard day at work. º¿º

  • Katherine

    I don’t watch Colbert, though I have seen bits of his show here and there. I’ve never found him to be that funny. I recently viewed a segment he did mocking Rick Santorum, called “The Partial-Birth Abortion Drinking Game.” Not funny at all. I wish he weren’t a Catholic; he makes us all look weak & pathetic.

  • James

    Unfortunately Colbert treats the name of our Lord with flippancy, which is blasphemous, he should leave Him out of his comedy show or show Him proper public veneration. Even a protestant C.S Lewis knew that as he wrote in The Screw Tape Letters: “the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy [God, (from perspective of a devil)] that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”


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