Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

15 Nov 2007, 22:01 p.m.

What Slash Taught Me About "Stephen Colbert"

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

You might think that I began reading Stephen Colbert fan fiction because the writers' strike is keeping his show off the air.* But it was two weeks ago that I started seeking it out. I'd had two or three recent dreams where Colbert was trying to teach me something -- math, management skills, ethics. What did that mean? I turned to The Colbert Report fanfic to help my conscious mind understand the themes in The Colbert Report that my subconscious was chewing on.

For background: like other fans, I didn't watch Colbert's show when it started out. This, despite a very friendly and funny call from a Report staffer when I worked at Salon Premium, back when the Report was just starting in 2005. He asked for a free subscription, a perk Salon and probably most major media outlets give their colleagues. We joked about Adam Carolla's car-like name and I wished him luck. But I wasn't watching. I thought The Colbert Report would be a one-trick pony and rather boring until that White House Correspondents Dinner speech.

Then I started tuning in and didn't stop. The Daily Show is parody but The Colbert Report is satire, the thumbnail conventional wisdom goes. "What's happened to The Daily Show?" one asks as Colbert looks comparatively hotter. "The Secret Agenda of Stephen Colbert", one speculates as his show nails not just the forms but the underlying conceptual dysfunction of reigning ideologies.

But that's all stuff you can get from watching the show, or reading nonfiction commentary. The Daily Show/Colbert Report fanfic brings subtexts to the surface. Sometimes it's just porny fanservice slash, fulfilling Wally Holland's critique. Or HOT fanservice. But sometimes you get psychological meat.

Erin Ptah specifically aims in her fiction to humanize the superficially despicable character that Colbert plays. Ptah comments:

He's clueless in a way that is (usually) charming. He's well-intentioned. He craves attention and approval. He's fragile and plagued by self-doubt. He always tries to do his best. He has a streak of childish innocence.

The theme of attention-seeking and approval-seeking resonates with me, and I hadn't expected it. The real Stephen Colbert is the youngest of eleven children and lost his dad and two brothers when he was a child. He freely admits a huge attention-seeking drive, but he'll act silly on stage without fear of embarrassment. The Colbert persona is a tremendous narcissist and that may be the only urge of his that he isn't in denial about. The real Colbert is aware enough to declare how lucky he is in an interview with Larry King: "[My character has] got a tremendous ego. I get to pretend I don't."

Once I really start thinking about how Colbert constructed an attention-hungry persona that screens his private, attention-hungry self from exposure -- because being authentic 100% of the time may turn you grey (cf. Jon Stewart) -- I want to digress a lot. His mask reminds me of customer service habits that prevent burnout, and the doubly-indirected attention-seeking reminds me of Anna Fels's insights on attention as a necessary component of mastery. But you get my point. There's a lot here. Another pervasive lesson in the Colbert character is the undermining of authority's assurances. It's always Opposite Day, so his blessings and curses are inimical to real-life value. What Ptah calls well-intentioned cluelessness goes hand-in-hand with pretzel logic:

"Well, there you are!" Stephen replied, triumphantly. "Only a man who was petrified of finding out he was gay would avoid having sex with men!"

How more succinctly could we put a neocon's wiretapping rationalizations than in this Colbert Report ad slogan? "I'm looking over your shoulder, but only because I've got your back." Well-intentioned cluelessness all the way.

You see the character's innocence come through when his character breaks. The fanfiction, as a rule, either shows Stephen or "Stephen," and so doesn't explore the space in between; Ptah's "The Thing With Feathers" is an exception (explicit example with implicit discussion throughout).

The best discussion, then, is a fan video: "Don't Stop Me Now/Don't stop me/'cause I'm having a good time!" Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" juxtaposed with three and a half minutes of Colbert breaking character. The character breaks are almost never outbreaks of seriousness when he's forcing jollity. It's his genuine pleasure breaking the serious mask.

And that's how you know he is having a good time. He wears the character lightly, breaking at least a little bit once an episode or more. It's great to see him smile for real! There's a lesson: the power of a genuine smile. And it makes you wonder how anyone could see those breaks and not recognize them, see the show and not know it's a parody.

Speaking of which, disturbing comments on a behind-the-scenes clip. People express their shock that it's an act. Liar! they cry. Or -- and I quote -- "HAHA! colbert exposed!there u go stupid liberals"


And as for the character always trying to do his best, and probably failing, he's not alone in that. For a fan fiction piece that explores this, I recommend Ptah's "Expecting" -- at the very least you should see the trailer.

So, if Colbert is showing up in my dreams as a teacher, what are my lessons? In some ways they're the same lessons I learned from sitcoms: be straightforward and honest to avoid drama. Low-probability embarrassments will happen, so get over it. Be kind to outsiders. But in sitcoms we learn to be kind and honest to others; Colbert is telling me to be kind and honest with myself.

* Leonard and I made muffins yesterday morning and I brought them to the Writers Guild picket line in midtown. Gawking report: John Oliver looked exhausted and a standup comic whose name I can't recall gave me a smile. Then, near Rockefeller Center, I saw paparazzi surrounding a car and asked a gawker who was in there. She finished snapping her cameraphone shot and turned to say triumphantly and definitively, "Celine Dion!"


Erin Ptah
25 Nov 2007, 13:59 p.m.

An interesting discussion indeed, and I'm flattered to be cited so much. The link about the Left Behind series as Bible fanfiction is a great insight.

Reading some of this, though, I feel like you're still blurring the line between Stephen and "Stephen." The character breaks don't tell us much about "Stephen", because they are by definition times when the actor is out of character. They tell us Stephen is having a good time.

The innocence of "Stephen" comes through when he falters while still in-character. When, after an angry rant at Apple, he sniffles, "Please, give me an iPhone. I'll be good!" When, while accusing Brad Pitt in Fight Club of promoting the gay agenda, his voice cracks as he exclaims, "I have thrown out five copies of that DVD!" When he announces that he'll subject himself to waterboarding to prove that it's not all that bad, blindfolds himself, and then starts panicking before anything actually happens.

"Stephen" is himself playing a role -- that of the brave, strong, manly, heterosexual, secure tough guy who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps -- but underneath that is a weak, scared, gay, nervous, lonely little kid who needs love and approval. And under that, on the screen at least, is a brilliant actor who loves attention but is self-assured enough that he'd survive without it, who should not be confused with the multileveled character that he plays.

One of the nice things about fanfiction is that we can scuttle the actor altogether. There are no character breaks because "Stephen" is taken as a stand-alone person. And we can rip into the levels of his character without worrying that Stephen will start cracking up and disturb the effect.