Stewart and Colbert: Breaking the 4th Wall, Coming Through, and Bricking It Up Again

In a recent blog post for The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder characterized Stewart’s and Colbert’s decision to hold opposed rallies in Washington, DC as “breaking the fourth wall and inserting themselves directly into the political debate,” but what they’re doing here isn’t precisely what the term “breaking the fourth wall” is meant to convey.  Stewart and Colbert are certainly partly-motivated not just by the fact of Glenn Beck’s massive Tea Party rally at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th, but by the allegory he was employing: As many of you know this was the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

As a “fake news” anchor, Stewart has long reacted to events in a way that made him an actual part of the national conversation; the day after Chris Matthews interviewed Georgia Senator Zell Miller about his speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, Stewart had him on the show to talk about Miller’s uncontrolled hostility.  But Stewart’s lack of actual credentials ironically gave him greater latitude to express his moral indignation; when Matthews returned to the show years later to plug his new book Life is a Campaign in which he argued all aspects of life are political and opportunistic, Stewart panned it, earning him Matthews’ hostility.

Colbert has already long-since immortalized himself with his hurtful but justified use of irony.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert may be the most-exemplary liberal ironists among our public figures.  This underscores the freedom their playful approach to politics affords them, because Stewart is ironically self-aware while Colbert is ironically-unselfconscious.  With Stewart, what you see is what you get; he is always himself, asking what he’d like to know, objecting when something is objectionable, crying when he is overwhelmed.  Colbert is mysterious–not because his real opinions are actually hidden, but because he is always in character; it’s hard to imagine the “real” Stephen Colbert simply because he seems so comfortable setting his true self aside.

Stewart and Colbert are perfect protagonists for our “post-postmodern” (heretofore and eternally Pseudo-modern) popular culture.  When Ambinder refers to Stewart and Colbert as “breaking the fourth wall,” he correctly identifies that weird interaction of the imaginary with the real, but the ironically self-aware character from all those stupid throwaway jokes was just pointing out that the world he inhabited was false, televised; Stewart and Colbert–especially Colbert–are TV characters that become real, and then leave the TV studio and influence events in the “real world” to leave no room for doubt.

Of course, as we go forward with this campaign season, those of us who haven’t already done so might feel a certain chill if they should happen to watch Glenn Beck.  Bill O’Reilly may have been Colbert’s model for his persona, but he would volunteer his centrist or liberal political positions to make his case that he really thought about the issues and not just a party hack.  He challenged George W. Bush for calling Jesus his favorite political philosopher while strongly-supporting the death penalty.  Beck pretty-much goes to the right, but not because he’s a party hack; worse than that, he is truly in it for himself.  Stephen Colbert’s role in his upcoming rally is doing is drawing an exact likeness of himself with Beck, to insinuate through imitation what more people should have recognized (or at least said) already, that Beck is an actor and that he really is just manipulating his conservative audience for money and influence.

Playing a “live” role the way Colbert does all the time must take great endurance, but don’t assume Stewart’s job is easy.  He is very real all the time. Comedian though he is, you may notice something interesting if you pretend he isn’t when you read the invitation to his event.  Jon Stewart may be the public protagonist of the past decade.


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