Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Satire: the new king in America

Stephen Colbert

SATIRE is the new king in America.

Its princes are television provocateurs Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart who are watched nightly by the young, the educated and the decision-makers.

Their programmes, The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, are the highest-ranking late-night talk shows in the US for adults aged between 18 and 49.

Stewart, who describes himself as a comedian and his programme as ‘fake news’ was voted the most trusted newsman in America  in 2009 in a TIME magazine on-line poll.  In 2012, Colbert was listed in TIME magazine’s the world’s 100 most influential people. Both programmes are produced and aired on the cable channel Comedy Network.

The baton of news trust and responsibility has been passed from respected anchorman and everyman’s wise uncle in slippers Walter Cronkite, to two comedians. Now that is satire.

America’s greatest living writer Philip Roth writes:

Satire is moral outrage transformed into comic art.

He also writes:

The American writer has his hands full, trying to understand and then describe and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and finally it is a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.

For many onlookers, the recent government shutdown, the NSA spy revelations and attitudes to gun control, healthcare, women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, religion and evolution, are all seriously out-of-kilter with run-of-the-mill European political thought.  The banner cry of ‘the greatest democracy in the world’ rings laughably hollow. And we haven’t yet mentioned the Tea Party.

These are the fertile fields that the savvy and smart Stephen Colbert ploughs each evening. His character is a parody of the self-important right wing commentators that plague US television and yearn for a return to the 1950s. He modestly refers to his viewers as ‘The Colbert nation’. His character is draped in eagles and stars and stripes which give him sufficient space and freedom to unveil the hypocrisies of US political life and not be decried as anti-American.

He is now a US institution. He made a highly publicised bid for president in 2002, mocking the presidential Super PAC campaign funding laws. He has testified before a Congressional inquiry on migrant workers and headed the Rally to Restore Sanity.

He invented the word truthiness - the quality by which one knows something emotionally or instinctively, without regard to evidence or intellectual examination… a bit like making up your own reality. The truthiness is whatever I want it to be.

Truthiness was levelled at the US political elite, especially George Bush and Dick Cheney, who knew ‘in their gut’ that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction, despite there being no evidence.  The dictionary Merriam-Webster made truthiness their Word of the Year in 2006.

The Stephen Colbert effect has become an obsession in some academic circles. Courses examine his media influence. Literature professor Michael Rodguez of Boston University likens Colbert to Socrates or Plato, who were interested in truth.

‘Colbert does another thing that Socrates did, which was to use the opponent’s own assumptions and pre-suppositions to then deconstruct them and show that they are, in fact, invalid. Colbert does that better than anyone I’ve seen in this generation’, Rodriguez says.

His show is loud and brash and peppered with ads in the flavour of American-style television entertainment, but definitely worth sitting through, although you will need to be patient.

Here are some of the finer moments of Colbert the provocateur:

1. The Toronto mayor Rob Ford speaks about smoking crack cocaine – starts 1.05

2. Daft Punk cancel their appearance on The Colbert Report, so Stephen Colbert calls on Henry Kissinger and Matt Damon and others to dance their way through “Get Lucky” with him.

3. Fox News launches its new TV news centre with giant computers – starts at 25 seconds.

4. Colbert introduces his new TV technology:  the News Veranda

5. Contemporary art with comedian /actor Steve Martin

6. Interview with Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are

7. The 10 Commandments

You can watch The Colbert Report most evenings here.


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