The Colbert Report made science the butt of jokes as often as politics and celebrity this year. Science, it seems, is funny.

Joel Jefferies/Comedy Central

I’m out of snacks, a fact that does not, however, prevent me from continually rechecking the fridge (mind you, there is a nonzero probability that the curry paste will spontaneously turn into gluten-free waffles or a monkey typing Hamlet). But I’m not really hungry; I’m looking in there for something to write.
A week ago I got an email from an editor at Seed magazine asking me to do a piece for their year-in-science issue:

The Colbert Report is one of the few spots on American television where scientists and science writers discuss their work, lampooned though it may be…. Today in order to vote, appreciate contemporary art, etc., more and more you must have an understanding of what’s happening in the world of science. The Colbert Report has upped the ante: You now need to know the science in order to get the joke. Science is becoming the currency of the hip.”

My assignment is to write a short profile piece on The Colbert Report in the context of this trend. I agree to do it, then promptly backpedal to the nearest slippery slope of over-analysis and inconvenient admissions.

First of all, I don’t agree. No, that’s last of all…. First of all, I don’t watch the show. Well, I don’t generally watch television, but I assure you this is more (though not entirely) an indication of my distractibility than it is of some holier-than-thou stance on America’s favorite pastime. Anyway, as an example of a point I may make later, this oversight is easily remedied: I spend a night downloading Colbert’s interviews with Janna Levin, Brian Greene, Sam Harris, Tim Flannery, Richard Dawkins, Peter Agre, the blonde sexologist, etc. Based on what I watched, I don’t think the audience really has to understand the science to get Stephen’s jokes. In fact, I would argue that there are very few scientists who could explain the nuances of string theory, offer a cogent play-by-play on the origins of life, or compare efficiencies of short- versus long-cycle fuel sources—let alone describe how the female orgasm works. Instead “we” (I’ll get to who “we” are in a minute) laugh at the dogmatic, absurdly reductive repast to which the host treats his guests. Granted, the scientists are particularly natural foils to Colbert’s character, and science talk provides especially fertile fodder for his piecewise linear logic. But to get the jokes, you don’t need to understand the complexities of the science—just appreciate the ludicrously simple level on which Colbert engages with it. For instance, after hearing cosmologist Janna Levin talk about Einstein’s theoretical realization of space-time, Colbert responds that “the last two minutes to me were just blahbudy blahbudy blah.” It doesn’t matter what she was talking about or if Colbert did or didn’t actually understand her; his delivery is hilarious. But, as satire is wont to do, the response comes crabwise at a more tragic joke, i.e., a dismissiveness symptomatic of the intellectual and social myopia afflicting the current political administration (as well as a whole lot of Americans whom “we” believe ourselves not to be). Laughing at this kind of humor is a sign that I’m part of this “we.” I’m in the know. (By the way, the author advises not trying this kind of analysis at home—or at a party. It’s Schrödinger’s laughter paradox: If you look at the joke, there’s a good chance you’ll kill it. Plus it will pretty much ensure that you go home alone.)

Okay, so who are “we”? The purportedly Colbert-watching-science-getting hip? I could look up the demographic breakdown for the show (age, race, political orientation, education); I could try to describe the dominant subculture in terms of aesthetic tastes, cultural interests, etc.; I can attempt to divorce science from the politicosocioeconomico milieu. I can make a huge Venn diagram with colors and my friends and family and Colbert as little asterisks! Or more relevantly, I could draw one circle and tell you that we are in it. And that mainstream America is not. It’s a dynamic picture, a permeable circle. We’re on the inside with a diverse group of fairly open-minded individuals who have informed opinions about the issues that affect their lives. We’re learning to negotiate the excess of information that surrounds us and we realize the power and the price of technology-enabled public forum. I think this is partly what would draw us to a program like The Colbert Report. We appreciate the transparency with which it presents news and personalities. We trust the accuracy of its social and political com(edy)mentary, which appeals to our humanity through intellectual satire rather than emotional subterfuge. When “truthiness” is assigned to an idea, we’re immediately compelled to question its merit, along with our own assumptions. This is all part of the Colbert gestalt that we tuned in (or logged on) to see.

So let’s rehash: We, the hip (or whatever we want to call ourselves), are not mainstream; Colbert is funny; and science is not special. So what qualifies any of this for Seed‘s 2006 retrospective? This was the program’s first year on the air. And the fact that the show is such a successful spin-off of a similarly minded show is evidence that the creators accurately assessed the sensibility of a nontrivial viewership. The program trusts this audience to be part of a participatory culture that realizes truth is based on a consensus of observation and experience. You see, it’s not The Colbert Report, but its success, which relies on the discriminating perspective of a growing demographic, that is worthy of mention here. Science isn’t becoming the currency of the hip; the hip are becoming more like scientists. The Colbert Report is just a new data point. And that, like my little fridge monkey who just helped me type this, is pretty cool.

—Jessica Banks is currently a 25th grader (i.e., a robotics PhD candidate) in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. She has worked for Comedy Central, 3 Arts Entertainment, and Al Franken.

Originally published January 17, 2007


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