I AM AMERICA (AND SO CAN YOU!)
By Stephen Colbert
Grand Central, 230 pages, $26.99
As cultural phenomenon and confused little man, Bill O’Reilly has never been more hopelessly endearing than when he went public a few weeks back with the discovery that colored folks chew and swallow when they eat.
“This is what white America doesn’t know,” he explained in that now-infamous radio broadcast, “They think the culture is dominated by Twista, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg.”
That just might be the most racially offensive thing ever said about white people. One presumes, after all, that true anti-rap bigots are committed enough to figure out which acts actually spew the most explicit lyrics, or, failing that, at least which ones sell enough records to merit a full fatwa. Why in the world is Mr. O’Reilly targeting the genial, obscure Twista—or as Mr. O’Reilly pronounces it, Twiss-TAH? That he knows the name at all is perhaps an unfortunate consequence of its phonological similarity to “loofah.”
Which brings me to the genius of Stephen Colbert. His nightly sendup of right-wing talking heads makes it obvious that televised white male resentment is less a matter of malevolent (or even coherent) ideology than a certain cultural dyslexia: The problem with “other voices” is having to keep straight all those new words! (Fellow Daily Show graduate Steve Carell brings the same essential insight to his role on The Office.)
IN THE TWO YEARS SINCE the show’s debut, “Stephen Colbert” has transcended parody to become one of the most richly textured characters on television. Sadly, none of that makes I Am America (And So Can You!) anything like a book worth reading.
It’s not simply that I Am America’s jarring cacophony of “satirical” charts and stickers and pull quotes reads too often like a blatant cash-in on a moment already fading (the copy from that 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner address is tacked on as an appendix), but that the dilution of the brand makes one wonder about its strength in the first place.
Take the Colbert bears. On The Colbert Report, the host’s relentless phobia of grizzlies, blacks and browns is a pristine, perfectly calibrated gag: A satiric echo of Mr. O’Reilly’s similarly prepubescent panic over the dark forces conspiring to steal Christmas, it blends bathos and bluster into dementedly good television for frat boy and psychoanalyst alike. In the book, we get a windy chapter that lays out Colbert’s animal neurosis with such leaden lines as “we have to take a page from the British Empire and rule the lesser species through intimidation.” The effect is like reading Shakespeare’s research notes on Hamlet—or Sacha Baron Cohen’s on Borat.
The text on family values and gender roles is marginally funnier, though Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield does a much better job making a fool of Harvey Mansfield than the young Harvard Lampoon alums charged with cobbling together this garish artifact. Which raises the troubling question: Isn’t there something regressive about Stephen Colbert as well as “Stephen Colbert”—the act, that is, as well as the joke?
After all, it’s a sign of progress that the adolescent-geriatric anxieties of O’Reilly and his ilk are now self-evidently “conservative.” The Colbert character is a Roth or Updike manqué, in the sense that, a generation ago, the rest of us would have been forced to accept his unique perversions as manifestations of a new mainstream. But with the advent of fake news as real protest, might we now find ourselves wedded to the peccadilloes of a different caste of white males? Dazed by good humor, we’ve jumped into bed with a bunch of clever, expensively educated, horrified liberals who can afford to throw their hands up and laugh at it all.
Lurking everywhere in this forsaken decade, Jon Stewart may have been the real enemy all along.
Jonathan Liu is a writer living in Queens.