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Stephen Colbert and humor in the public sphere

It’s the topic of a 2017 book by Assistant Professor of Communication Liz Benacka.

Citizen Colbert: Humor’s Function in the Public Sphere analyzes Colbert’s most notorious public appearances over the last decade: his 2006 speech at the National Correspondent’s Dinner, which he famously called a “fact free zone;” his testimony in front of the House Judiciary Hearing on agricultural workers in September of 2010; the October 2010 “Rally to Restore Fear and/or Sanity,” and Colbert’s Super PAC, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” 

“During these appearances, Colbert performed in front of an uninitiated audience and ridiculed a variety of problems and controversies threatening our democracy,” explained Benacka. They included the role of the media and politics in a post-9/11 environment, immigration policy, the polarized political sphere evident in presidential campaigns, and the Supreme Court decision of Citizens United that equated money with speech.

“While many academic works have focused on Colbert’s influence over his studio and viewing audience, until now little to no scholarly attention has been paid to the role of Colbert’s appearances in character in the public sphere,” Benacka said. 

The project developed out of the communication professor’s work with Richter scholars Joaquin Basile Patron ’17 and Kristen Whitney ’17 in the of summer 2014. You can learn more about their project here.

Benacka’s preliminary conclusions, while not necessarily humorous, are important. “Humor provides a civic education, especially in an era of partisan politics and ideologically skewed media outlets,” she explains. “Essentially, satire, parody and irony function rhetorically, presenting a broad perspective on current events that encompasses dual perspectives in order to facilitate an engaged awareness of current events.”

Citizen Colbert: Humor’s Function in the Public Sphere comes out in fall 2016 from Lexington Press, a division of Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group. Just in time for the presidential election.

See a short video of Professor Benacka describing her new book: