Friday, July 14, 2006


What is it about Stephen Colbert that makes his program so fundamentally different from the late night aesthetic of The Daily Show? Like most people I know, I favor Jon Stewart's soulful cynicism over Colbert's excessive imitation, but his approach creates an entirely seperate experience. It feels more like a guilty pleasure -- the same way that some people might describe The O'Reilly Factor. Anyone who laughs at Bill's show when he delivers his regular over-the-top indictments of the Left (his perspective, not mine) will find similar amusement watching Colbert. His satiric performance is complimented by the formal design of the show, most notably with The Word, an appropriation of the Talking Points segment on The O’Reilly Factor. Since Colbert’s act primarily intends to mock Bill O’Reilly’s demeanor,[1] The Word becomes an extension of that imitation, since it is presented with a similar design and structure. One mechanism that can be used to understand how The Word satirizes Talking Points is through semiotics— the study of signs.

This is an academic theory that I've been trying to pull together, so it does get somewhat dense, but semiotics really do provide a great entry point for exploring how ideology works, so obviously they work just as well to show how ideology can be mocked (and anyway, you can really get the gist of the concepts with a little sloppy googling).

According to the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, a sign is defined as “anything that determines something else,”[2] and has two basic elements: the signifier and the signified. On both The O’Reilly Factor and The Colbert Report, the signifier is the physical representation of Talking Points, which (broadly speaking) features the presenter on the left hand of the screen discussing an issue, while summaries of the points discussed are listed on the right hand of the screen. The signified is the meaning that viewers extract from this representation. On The O’Reilly Factor, the signified is O’Reilly’s opinion. Colbert satirizes O’Reilly’s discussion in Talking Points by pretending to put forth the same opinions with The Word. Since The Word looks like Talking Points but is obviously different,[3] it functions as an “icon” that represents Talking Points. An icon is something related to a sign that gives it value.[4] Using these definitions, the manifestation of the Talking Points structure in The Word forms an iconic relationship with Talking Points that redefines the sign (Talking Points) by changing the signifier from its original meaning on The O’Reilly Factor— making the viewer feel like they identify with O'Reilly—to obviating this effect, so that the signified becomes a satire of O’Reilly’s self-projected conservative perspective.

Whew. OK, if you get that much, the rest should fall into place rather easily.

The July 10, 2006 episode of The O’Reilly Factor opens with a typical Talking Points structure. O’Reilly is framed on the left of the screen, flanked on the right by a graphic designed to have the appearance of a memo. Before the graphic is assembled in an animation (a reassembling of The O’Reilly Factor insignia), O’Reilly introduces the topic: “The truth about the rich—that’s the subject of this evening’s Talking Points memo.” At this point, the first Talking Points statement is gradually written out on the graphic while O’Reilly speaks it. The statement reads: “How many times have you heard the left complain about tax cuts for the rich?” However, O’Reilly, in his spoken form of this statement, replaces “complain” with “wail.” He has now established his topic (the accusation from “the left” that the rich receive tax benefits) in addition to his opinion (he is opposed to this complaint).

On the same night, The Colbert Report featured this structure on The Word. Colbert is framed on the left of the screen, flanked on the right by a graphic that resembles the visual arrangement of the Talking Points graphic. Colbert introduces the topic with a general statement: “Don’t be fooled, nation. This country’s senior citizens are anything but dodos. They’re actually tonight’s Word.” The topic is established (senior citizens), in addition Colbert’s projected opinion (that they won’t go away). The first expression assembled on The Word graphic is “Silver Foxes,” a jokingly condescending reference to the elderly that imitates O’Reilly’s condescending reference to a “wail[ing]” left.

This demonstrates how Colbert satirizes the Talking Points lead-in by introducing his subject using O’Reilly’s parameters and applying them to an intentionally absurd statement. The signified has been redefined through an adaptation of Talking Points, giving new meaning to the original sign. Which seems to explain why the satire is so effective. Who needs Bill when you've got Stephen? Unless, you know, you actually buy into Bill's bravado. And that takes some serious effort.

[1] Professor Joe Cutbirth, lecture notes, July 7, 2006.

[2] Peirce, Charles Sanders. Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic. University of North Carolina Press, 1991. pg. 239

[3] Since The Word is presented by Stephen Colbert, airs on a different show on a separate channel, is presented in front of live audience, and other obvious elements that immediately differentiate it from Bill O’Reilly’s Talking Points, it is justifiable to say that The Word is obviously not Talking Points, despite similarities.

[4] Ibid.


Blogger blogaccount54 said...

I like it! Good job. Go on.

5:33 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home