Philosophical differences

Colbert essay collection doesn’t measure up to its subject

If Rick Lax - who is clearly in the target demographic of Stephen Colbert’s new book - doesn’t like this, chances are neither will you.
Rick Lax

I studied philosophy in college, and I watch The Colbert Report, so it’s safe to say I fall into the Stephen Colbert and Philosophy: I Am Philosophy (And So Can You!) target demographic. It’s also safe to say that if I didn’t like the book, you won’t like it either.

I didn’t like the book.

I sensed that most of the contributing essayists (such as Sophia Stone, who asked, “Why Is Stephen Colbert So Funny?” and Nicolas Michaud, who revealed, “Why Mr. Colbert Should Be President”) stayed up late at night, praying that Colbert himself would read their essays, call their offices and say, “You know, we could use a witty philosopher like you on The Colbert Report writing staff. Can you start Monday?” Neither Stone nor Michaud take home the No. 1 Ass-Kisser award, though—that distinction goes to Rachael Sotos, who writes, “Stephen Colbert, the quintessential plaything of higher (and often lower) powers, entertains us and simultaneously teaches us to be free.”

Unlike Colbert, Sotos isn’t being facetious.

The Details

Stephen Colbert and Philosophy: I Am Philosophy (And So Can You!)
Two stars
Edited by Aaron Allen Schiller.
Open Court, $20.

I initially assumed Mark Ralkowski’s essay, “Is Stephen Colbert America’s Socrates?” would be more of the same, but I was wrong; Ralkowski concludes that Colbert is not America’s Socrates: “Athens executed Socrates because the Athenian political establishment considered him a threat, whereas Colbert was President Bush’s invited guest and entertainer at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Moreover, as most Colbert fans are well aware .... political guests have received a considerable ‘bump’ in campaign contributions after appearing on The Colbert Report. Socrates was never so cozy with Athens’ power brokers.”

In one passage, Ralkowski inadvertently admonishes citizens of the Colbert Nation for their passivity; argues Ralkowski: “Colbert wins the battle—he refutes his extremist guests and reveals his various targets, in the media and politics and religion, as hypocrites—but he loses the war: His audience is persuaded in theory, but not in practice. The jokes go down easy, and nothing really changes.”

Roben Torosayan says “Colbert [demonstrates faulty reasoning] so well that an astute viewer can deduce how to think critically precisely by not using the Colbert character’s manipulations of language and logic—and by catching such abuses whether committed by others, or by ourselves.”

But philosophers Torosayan and Ralkowski are the exceptions; 12 of the 16 essays make the same arguments and address the same points. They quote Colbert’s first episode, they define “truthiness” and “wikiality,” and they mention that Colbert filters information through his gut, not his mind. I blame editor Aaron Allen Schiller for this overlap. He should have insisted that each contributor find different episodes to quote and different points to make. (Schiller, inadvertently, is responsible for the book’s best one-liner: He calls Colbert “the Mozart of bad arguments.”)

If you want to read a book on the philosophy of humor, pick up Ted Cohen’s Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. You’ll learn twice as much, laugh twice as much, and you’ll do it in half the time. In fact, you’ll probably be done before the clock hits 11:30, so you’ll have time to find the remote, flip to Comedy Central and watch the master in action.


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