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Screen Space and Visualization in the Colbert Report (Media Aesthetics, April 2012)

Screen Space and Visualization in the Colbert Report (written for BECA 340, Media Aesthetics, San Francisco State University, April 2012.)

The Colbert Report is a comedy show that satirizes TV news programs, particularly the type of conservative opinion journalism practiced on the Fox News Channel. Stephen Colbert the performer plays a character named “Stephen Colbert”, an “angry middle-aged white man” pundit in the style of Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, only with a twist. Absurdly sure of himself and the rightness of his cause, bombastic and overbearing but bursting with infectious energy, Colbert positions himself as a heroic defender of American values in an exaggerated parody of the radio and TV pundits who take themselves more seriously than the actual news they are entrusted to convey.

A big part of what makes The Colbert Report effective as both a comedy program and a show that makes you think is the use of aesthetic elements in its presentation. If Fox News takes many of the elements of TV sports networks like ESPN (fast pace, aggressive voices, “in-your-face” graphics) and applies them to news-like content, Colbert takes the Fox approach even farther and combines it with the television equivalent of a velvet painting of a weeping eagle holding a flag and staring at the exploding Twin Towers. The use of such aspects as field of view, point of view, and camera angles plays a big part in why the show is both visually striking and hilarious.

The stunning opening sequence of the show is a dynamic explosion of patriotic kitsch signifiers. A red, white and blue bald eagle flies toward the viewer. As it plunges to the lower right corner, Colbert appears, standing with arms outstretched on a navy blue background with a white light above and a red light below and disembodied “inspiring” words like “powerful”, “authoritative”, “honorable” and “patriotic” float on a level plane, surrounding Colbert at waist level. We zoom in to a medium shot of Colbert, who gazes at us with a knowing smirk and extends his left hand to us, inviting us to join him on his heroic journey.

The eagle zooms across the screen from left to right, functioning as a “wipe” transition to a long shot of Colbert running towards us, as more words float around him in deep space. He shoves the word “bold” aside and grabs a flag in the left foreground. Jump cut to a low-angle POV looking up at Colbert as he jumps down through empty space holding the flag and letting out a silent war cry. (As Zettl points out on p. 213, looking up at subjects with the camera bestows power and prestige on them.) He falls toward the lower left corner and out of frame. We cut again to a straight-on view of him descending; now we seem to be falling with him as the inspiring words fly up past us. We zoom in to a close up of his stern, determined face as he grasps the flagpole tightly. Cut to empty space and more floating words as Colbert “lands” on an invisible horizontal plane, planting the flag as circular white waves flow out from his right foot which turn into a design reminiscent of the Presidential Seal and neon-lit balconies and columns rise up in the background. We zoom out to an extreme long shot of a giant red, white, and blue arena with Colbert in the center, dissolving into white light as the Colbert Report logo flies away from us and the eagle swoops toward us in attack position. All of this happens in 20 seconds, priming us for all that is to follow.

The body of the show keeps the energy high. Colbert’s bombastic persona is matched by the camera work. Cameras fly around the room as Colbert pontificates on his garish red, white and blue set and the noisy audience responds wildly to his jokes. When delivering a monologue, he aggressively darts from one camera angle to another, perhaps parodying the way liberal TV pundit Keith Olbermann has always used multiple camera angles to emphasize his points in his “special comments.”

One of the funniest aspects of the show is the way Stephen Colbert introduces his guests. The traditional talk show technique goes like this: the host gives an introduction and the guest walks on from backstage, enters on the left side of the frame, and sits down next to the host in a seat or a couch, ready to chat. Colbert turns this upside down by giving the introduction, welcoming the guest, and then jumping up from his desk and running in a rightward direction across the set with the camera chasing after him wildly, to reveal the guest has been waiting onstage all along, sitting alone in the right corner. The result is an over-the-top establishment of power dynamics, with Colbert the active party, running as the camera follows, while the guest is exiled to the corner and ignored until the powerful hero is ready to deal with him or her. The interview segments are a post-modern joke where on one level, the “Colbert” persona engages cluelessly and/or accusingly with the guest, and on a deeper level, the guest gets to present a serious point of view in the face of an interrogation we all know to be absurd. The use of the twisted introduction sets up this ironic situation brilliantly.

Much of the appeal of The Colbert Report comes from a clever and talented comedian making serious points through an arrogant but lovable persona. But it is the use of visualization, particularly the way the show plays with conventions of point of view, depth of field, and camera angles, that helps make it as ingenious and funny as it is.