A Letter to Stephen Colbert

I am without sufficient breath to detail the extent to which my life has been shaped by one Stephen T Colbert, DFA. Though he may never see this document (hence why I have idled toward a 3rd person styling, for ease of reading by the literally dozens of people who pass these pages), I wanted nonetheless to mark the occasion of The Colbert Report’s final week of broadcasting. It’s still my hope to meet the man someday, to shake his hand and (with minimal stammering and tears) impart to him my gratitude and admiration. But for the moment, this eulogy will have to suffice.

When my older brother was a graduate student, he gave me the single most appropriate gift one can give to their junior high aged sibling: a copy of America the Book. Separated by almost two generations, I was constantly in a hurry to be as well informed and sophisticated as I was certain he was. Anything to be included. So I studied that book religiously (including, hot-faced and slightly ill, the senators), and when he was home from the frozen wastelands of North Dakota we would watch The Daily Show. Every time my brother would laugh I’d stare harder at the screen, trying to will satirical knowledge into my mind. This is how I began getting into arguments with other 9th graders about the justifiability of the Iraq War. There was an addictive quality to knowing things, and eventually I watched even when my brother wasn’t home.

Election night, in the middle of a bit involving romantically shared pizza and a gunshot. That’s when I found Stephen Colbert.

Despite a lifelong struggle to keep from falling into the comforting arms of elitism – after all, it was this man who told me not to be cynical, while addressing a college that I would never e able to afford – it nonetheless gives me a deep sense of pride to ccall myself an original member of the Colbert Nation, a founding it-getter, old enough to miss Tek Jansen and The Toss and the bittersweet goodbye to that undersized original studio, the one with the deli-veranda outside that I fantasized endlessly about standing first in line beneath.

(I never did, though I squeezed close as I could to the VIP fence in the chilly DC air of 2010, convinced – delusional or no – that I’d made brief eye contact with Jon in the finale’s quiet moments of clarity. But that is another man, and another story.)

I am a better person because of Stephen Colbert. Four nights a week (first alone, and then with my mother) I studied that blustering caricature, simple to take up but brilliance to master. Anyone could play a simple shrill contrarian, the bloated strawman saying little more than glossy versions of “look how stupid and smelly I am,” while wearing a thinly veiled name like Rill o’Beilly (the check is in the mail, Mr. Croshaw). But Colbert was a master even to my untrained eye (and only more so the savvier I became), able to redirect your eye from the magic to the sleight of hand behind it and back at the whim of his performance; a character flexible enough to truly, emphatically believe his own stupidity whether scripted or impromptu while simultaneously urging the audience to read through to a thoughtful consideration of the subject – a magic eye poster of words, if you will. And even more brilliant than the nightly news bits were the field pieces, uniquely poised to illuminate the horrors of some truly hateful (and often influential) individuals by virtue of such a strongly realized character.

You might’ve guessed it from that fawning tone: he was the first person I ever developed a crush on. The first real one, even if he wasn’t much more plausibly attainable than those reams of fictional characters. But it was more than good looks or a quick wit (even if every second I was talking was an attempt to get to the last word quicker, better, more charmingly, to become the kind of razor edged wit he’d delight in talking to).  Long before I’d let my queerness out if its carefully cordoned corner, this man opened a door I was sure wouldn’t exist for me – where spirituality wasn’t shackled to the knee jerk capital-r Right. My mother loved that he, too, was a Catholic. I nearly cried because someone was telling me (in a roundabout, always roundabout) that I didn’t have to pick a side after all.

In 2010, not long before that DC visit (before one of the first truly awe-inspiring days of my life, before the cousin who’d agreed to put me up called me a monster without knowing she was doing it but meaning it no less), Stephen Colbert went to Capitol Hill to give testimony on behalf of immigrant workers. To speak for those who were given no voice in the justice system. And I learned philanthropy I’d never thought about, the kind that didn’t start from a foundation made of riches.

Last, most important maybe, I learned my own blind spots, that pedestals are foolish and – more than that – unnecessary. #CancelColbert came and went with little more than smudges behind it, as hashtag calls to arms often do. And I confess, my kneejerk (ah, that word again) reaction was then and remains now a fierce instinctive protectiveness for the man whose fingerprints are more on my upbringing than teachers I saw every day. And it dawned on me, slow but never too late (with the good counsel of wiser friends at my back), that Colbert himself had prepared me for this.

As much as I was intimidated by a snarl of complex questions (whether hashtags in such contexts are mere ciphers of activism, if the flare up stole attention from the original discrimination against Native Americans by a Certain Football Team, if it was worth bringing up a tired stereotype of another group even if it was in the name of decrying that original discrimination), I was no good to anyone if I pushed them away in favor of clinging to That Guy I Like. That very guy taught me to speak truth to power, to listen to and elevate (as best I can) the voices of those who are ignored by media and the powers that be in the name of a more clear headed tomorrow. If I wasn’t willing to acknowledge the problem at hand (and the many, many degrees of potential culpability versus intent), then I might as well start developing a taste for Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

And when the pedestal came down, when I was able to say ‘here is a complex being with flaws’ (I feel as though I should throw in the phrase cis white hetero trash, just for the sake of buzzwords), I was left not with a broken idol but something like amazement. That a shut in, nerdy kid with a gasflare temper and a disposition somehow both selfish and eager to please, might have managed to take a step toward being worth a damn. Even if I never did get a chance to be interviewed on The Colbert Report.

Maybe next time.

Love,

Vrai

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