The Colbert Report

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How do you know when an entertainment event is a cultural signifier? Easy: it's when Rush Limbaugh asserts that "it has just declared war on the heartland of America." That, anyway, is what Limbaugh has been widely reported as saying upon word that CBS has hired Stephen Colbert to replace Dave Letterman on CBS's Late Show And while Limbaugh's declaration may be the most spectacular of responses to Colbert's hiring, it is but one of a virtually endless stream of comments about what is, from one perspective, merely a corporate personnel decision on the part of CBS.  But when such a decision gets this sort of attention, you can be quite confident that it is more than it appears: it is, in short, a sign, and therefore worthy of a semiotic analysis. In conducting such an analysis, we don't need to judge either Colbert or any particular response to his new television role.  The point is to analyze the significance both of his hiring and of the reaction to it.  And, as always, we need to begin with some contextualization. Let's look first at the system of late-night talk show hosts.  There have been quite a lot of them, but none looms larger than the late Johnnie Carson.  As the now legendary host of The Tonight Show, Carson turned that program—and late night TV in general—into an institution, and what that institution once represented in the Carson era (I'm thinking here of the 1960s) was what I can best describe as a kind of laid-back Eisenhower-Republican ethos: a mild-mannered, good-humored Middle Americanism that, in the current political climate, would probably be denounced as being "socialistic."  Carson himself wasn't political—at least not in any overtly partisan fashion—but in an era when a cultural revolution was convulsing the nation, his cheerfully bland monologues, banter, and let's-kick-everything-off-with-a-golf-swing manner was a kind of haven for Middle American adults: the parents of those hell-raising baby boomers who regarded The Tonight Show as just another "plastic" signifier of an "Establishment" that they wished either to escape or transform. That's why it was so significant that, when Carson retired, such edgier hosts as Jay Leno (who got Carson's job) and David Letterman (who essentially took Carson's place, though on a different channel) took over the late night watch.  These hosts—especially Letterman—were chosen precisely because they appealed to those edgier young baby boomers who, during the 1970s, had ceased to disdain late night talk shows and had become a coveted audience for it.  Though hardly an earth shaking development, the ascendancy of Letterman was but one of many signifiers by the early 1980s of a certain mainstreaming of the cultural revolution.  The conservative backlash to the 1960s may have captured the White House through twelve years of Reagan-Bush, but within popular culture, at least, one of the last bastions of Middle Americanism had fallen, so to speak, to the left. Today's choice of an even edgier entertainer—in fact, America's most wickedly funny satirist of right-wing media—to replace Letterman thus signifies an intensification of the trend.  The Colbert Report is one of the current youth generation's favorite television programs, and CBS's choice of Colbert among so many other powerful contenders (Tina Fey, anyone? Amy Poehler?) most certainly appears intended to capture the millennials as an audience for its post-Letterman Late Show. I think that Limbaugh, then, is wrong to attribute either cultural or political motivations to CBS's choice.  CBS's motivations, like any motivation in a commercial popular culture, are simple: the company wants to make money, and it has judged that by appealing to millennials it will do just that.  In other words, CBS isn't "declaring war" on anyone.  Still, I would agree with Limbaugh (did I just say that?!) that the choice of Colbert has political significance.  After all, Colbert's whole shtick lies in a very partisan (much more partisan than Letterman, and even more so than Jon Stewart) ridiculing of some of the icons of conservative media, and that's political. For me, the fact that CBS apparently feels that it can safely choose as potentially divisive an entertainer as Stephen Colbert is to rule the castle that Carson built (albeit on another station) is what is most significant here.  The cultural revolution has rolled along to a new stage.  In fact, it may well one of the most potent signs today of the changing demography that has been worrying Republican strategists as they seek ways of recapturing the White House.  Whether or not the Colbert-hosted Late Show becomes a popular hit remains to be seen (as I have hinted above, a woman host might have been a better idea, and, after all, there is still a sizable Middle American component to the audience for late night talk TV and it might not take to Colbert), but the significance of this choice will remain.  The Democrats, so to speak, have won this round, and they never even had to enter the ring. So hail to the new satirist-in-chief.  I wonder how long his term will run.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.