Giving Earth the Colbert Bump


Share this article

In the fight to save Earth from climate change and its other man-made woes, there are many who dedicate themselves to studying, educating, inventing, investing, recruiting, reporting, litigating, legislating, lobbying, blogging, conserving, writing, modeling and reviewing scientific studies.

But how many heroes of the environment are equally committed to cracking you up with laughter? There’s at least one, a high priest of the tragicomic: Stephen Colbert.

Colbert has a hidden agenda, to destroy the collective unconscious calm about Planet Home’s peril. And his signature laser pointer is absurdity. (SC, before introducing Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy: “I wonder if clean coal gives clean lung?”) There’s such a surplus to draw from — absurdity, that is; maybe he’s just gone enviro-mental.

On Oct. 19, 2005, the third day of his new series The Colbert Report, a spin-off of the Daily Show, Colbert began to take aim, sometimes methodically, often chaotically, at the regular wrecking of Earth and its essential resources.

Four years and 600-plus episodes later, even as the Columbia University School of Journalism suspends its graduate environmental journalism program, he hasn’t stopped pointing.

To those who have been lassoed by Colbert’s brand of humor, it probably became apparent by early 2006 that The Report had a penchant for the environment — it wasn’t just a faddish topic begging for barbs, although it was that, too, and still is. (SC: “Last Sunday was Earth Day, when the Global Warming Troopers save the Earth, one drum circle at a time.”)

Since his first eco-essay weighing the merits of saving whales and cod versus seals and polar bears, Colbert’s Choice, so to speak, he has delivered his ricochet reasoning and boomerang logic about planetary issues on an almost weekly basis. (“Remember, it’s not about who’s cutest; they make plush toys out of all of them.”)

With infinity itself at stake, having so much fun watching is almost guilt-inducing. Tears of laughter seem appropriate.

To wit, as featured entertainer at the 2006 Washington Correspondents’ Association dinner, Colbert said, in reference to his Colbert Report interview with Rev. Jesse Jackson, “It’s like boxing a glacier. … Enjoy that metaphor, by the way, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is.”

Colbert returns often to the sorry subject of glaciers, as in 2008, with guest Bob Barr:

SC: "Do you guys (Libertarians) believe in global warming?"

Barr: "Global warming is a fact, but we believe the market should take care of it, not the government."

SC: "Yeah, I agree. I say let the market decide what is or isn’t a glacier."

The Colbert Report ’s writing team is inspired, but again and again Colbert proves himself to be an improv master of the ironic ba-da-bing.

The Report-makers regularly whip environmental stories and champions into the series’ comic concoctions, often several times in one episode. Few weeks pass without the performer presenting (and entertaining) at least one representative of the expert and advocate groups that address climate and other Earth urgencies.

Whatever the topic, Colbert is prepared for all his guests, and he also prepares them for Colbert. In a December 2005 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, he revealed that when he greets his guests before taping he warns: “Now, you are aware that I am a professional idiot …?” Nevertheless, it’s always a kick to watch his guests’ reactions to his upside-down, inside-out punditry. They’re like feedback loops, only funny.

Seeing that Anderson Cooper, who Colbert introduced in October 2007 as “the silver surfer of cable news,” is as susceptible as anyone to giggles is a surprise bonus of the witty and substantive interview, but also an effective leveler that makes the information accessible.

As they discussed the CNN/Cooper-hosted Planet in Peril, Colbert made room between jokes for important, digestible facts about the world-wide effects of climate change — the UN warning that Earth is losing species at about a thousand times the natural rate of extinction (SC: “But do we really need all those animals? A lot of them are similar …”) or that every year an area the size of Connecticut is being destroyed in the Amazon rainforest.

Colbert can also nimbly turn his laser pointer into a light saber, as he did with author Bjorn Lomborg, who is adept at attracting the media spotlight, but not so popular with IPCC scientists when it comes to his views on how big a deal climate change is.

After Lomborg lightly brushed off last century’s one foot sea level rise, Colbert pressed hard and loudly about scientific projections that Earth’s temperature will rise 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century. (SC on 60 Minutes: “Volume is very important.”)

SC: “Does it happen every hundred years? … every thousand years? … every 10,000 years?

Lomborg: “Well, no … ,“ sheepish laugh.

SC: “How often does this happen is what I want to know. … Just tell me how often that happens. … First time ever — oKAY?”

Lomborg Limbergered.

When a guest is immune to Colbert’s badgering, he may interject: “I have a Peabody Award!” In the case of scientist/straight-woman Melanie Stiassny, who, when Colbert repeatedly contradicted her and insisted the canyon being discussed was thousands, not million of years old, she yielded not an inch or a grin, but said: “No. Did you listen to

Moving on, he asked her if she’d found any pieces of the Ark.

Guests with knowledge and passion about environmental solutions have stacked up, ranging from activist Bill McKibben to writer Tom Friedman, ocean explorer Sylvia Earle to entrepreneur Shai Agassi, inventor Dean Kamen to Sen. John Kerry. And from my unscientific (but Colbertian) calculation, the interviews pertaining to the environment are generally allotted the most air time. COL-BERT!!!

The segment “The Word” is maybe the most ingeniously, hilariously contorted. The writers deploy details from everyday political irony, which Colbert reports with newscaster pomp. On the other side of the frame from him, under THE WORD banner, commentary appears at choice points.

One of many favorites, from May 2008:

SC: There may be a way to get patriots like me excited about climate change, and it’s tonight’s WORD: Declaration of Warming. … Y’see, we need to think of global warming as an invasion of our homeland by heat. …

THE WORD screen: U.S. Soon Literally a Melting Pot

And from July 2009,

THE WORD: Ban De Soleil

SC: The point is … preserving our planet should not entail sacrifice. I mean, we’ve been carrying on two wars for six years without sacrificing so much as an iPhone app!

THE WORD: iCouldcareless

There’s a bottomless pit of targets on which Colbert can hit the satiric bulls-eye. Let’s hope that Earth will get the famed “Colbert Bump.”

So, The Report’s host has rightly earned, among other awards, four Emmys, a Peabody and a treadmill on a NASA space station named for him. But he remains unnamed as a TIME hero of the Environment, overlooked by the magazine since it instituted its yearly roundup of honorees in 2007.

Therefore, I nominate Stephen Colbert as 2009 Earth Man.

And because of his brave and brilliant Washington Correspondent’s Dinner performance, since he is never mean-spirited, and, for airing the heartwarmingest public send-off ever honoring his head writer and executive producer Allison Silverman, he is my favorite person I don’t know personally.

And that’s The Word.

(For more sobering amusement, see these Colbert Report clips.)


See also:

Media Savvy Youth Are Blogging Coal to Death

Film Review: Robert Stone’s "Earth Days"

Pragmatic Passion in the Green Business World