Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Timely Satire Of Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!)

The Good: Funny, Moments that reach into clever
The Bad: To truly "get" requires knowledge of television show, Not all moments land, Very timely
The Basics: Stephen Colbert (and his co-writers) present a book that extends the humorous persona of the Colbert character from the mock-conservative The Colbert Report.

It's a rare thing that I pick up a book of humor, especially satire. Books like that tend to be very polarizing and while I have little problem with that, it is hard to read a book and evaluate it when one knows that it is pretty much a "love it" or "hate it" type work. And while I do enjoy watching The Daily Show With Jon Stewart when I am on the road, I have seldom found myself as amused by Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report, which follows it.

This is not to say that I have not enjoyed the humor of Stephen Colbert. My problem with The Colbert Report is pretty much that it's a one-trick pony. Colbert deadpans his way through being an arch-conservative pundit who spouts off the most cliche concepts of patriotism, values and other conservative-appearing buzzwords to make a show of defending all things American as good and the rest of the world as losers. The problems with the show - at least the episodes that I have seen - are that Colbert is very good at what he does and he is essentially telling the same joke over and over again. Colbert's deadpan is right on; he is consistently in character and if one did not know he was being satirical, it is easy to see how some would think he was this right-wing bastion of ideology. This is largely because does not do clever asides or stop to smirk at the camera the way Jon Stewart does. In other words, Colbert does not label his jokes.

With his book, I Am America (And So Can You!), Colbert labels his jokes. In fact, the book is filled with humorous asides, in red ink, in the outside margins. I Am America (And So Can You!) is a 228 page one-trick pony but what keeps it from being mysterious to future generations will be the sidenotes. Indeed, the book is funny, but the only thing that keeps it from hinging entirely on the knowledge of Stephen Colbert's schtick is the prevalence of sidenotes and diagrams throughout the book that offer little asides, like pop-up video notes to deliver counter punchlines to what is in the main text.

In I Am America (And So Can You!) Colbert writes with mock-conservatism about the importance of the American family and keeping it idealized, vilifying education, science, and homosexuality, and doing what he can about race relations and immigration. And while someone, somewhere, might come to believe that Colbert is serious in his section on racism when he writes, "After about a hundred years of this, a very smart man named Dr. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech and said, 'I have a dream that this should end!' And it did. Racism no longer exists in America" (172) it is quite hard to believe those people would actually get that deep into the book before recognizing the humor. Moreover, the lines I just cited are actually packed with footnotes and sidebars. After the "And it did," there is a footnote that plays off a chapter-long joke about the song "Ebony And Ivory" that notes "With the help of Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney" (172). As well, next to the last line I cited, there is the Colbert aside that "May vary on a block-by-block basis" (172).

In other words, I Am America (And So Can You!) is a book packed with jokes that even those not tuned in to The Colbert Report ought to understand as humor and satire and it is hard to believe that there are those who would not.

In addition to the lengthy diatribes on the class war between the upper, middle, and lower classes, the evils of the liberal media and the deprivations of Hollywood films, I Am America (And So Can You!) is packed with pictures and illustrations. Colbert satirically solicits advertisers throughout the Sports chapter, filling up space with corporate logos and slogans and continually renaming the chapter based on the sponsors willing to pay him for advertising space. There are places this works quite well, like the magazine covers imagined by Colbert in the section on the media (152) and the image of the book stuck inside a Bible (on page 52) to deliver humor that is actually funny and fits with the satirical intent of the book.

But then there are pictures like the coupon on page 27 for age-defying pudding that just fall flat. In combination with the over-large American-flag shaped text at the beginning of each chapter, there are maybe a hundred pages of actual text throughout the book and the rest is filled with font-size changes, open spaces (there is a place for animals to mark their territory on one page) and photographs and illustrations.

As well, I Am America (And So Can You!) comes with stickers so that one may mark their first edition in places where they agree with Colbert and award other books the "Stephen T. Colbert Award For The Literary Excellence." And Colbert acknowledges at points that he is killing space in order to reach a page count and the book self-referential like that in many places.

Colbert presents I Am America (And So Can You!) as an opportunity for readers (he does not recommend reading books) to become more patriotic and more like Colbert (at least the Colbert of The Colbert Report). As a result, the book is a clear work of humor and fiction that is intended to amuse, rather than enlighten, readers. While it is perfectly possible to get the humor that is unique to the book out of what is on the page, the specific voice of the Stephen Colbert character is rather dependent upon seeing at least one episode of The Colbert Report.

Will those who do not watch the show get something out of it? Absolutely. There are many lines that are independent of the Colbert voice, like in the section on how to read the book, where Colbert writes "This book should never have the midsection carved away in order to conceal a weapon or jewelry. Those items should be stored either inside the taxidermy heads hanging in the trophy room or in the safe behind the painting in the study" (x). Jokes like that are, again, clearly labeled jokes that make this a very quick read of a humor book.

But the political commentary on the conservative movement and its dogmatic approach to debunking science, protecting the traditional family and lambasting media and entertainment outlets are best appreciated by an understanding of the Colbert character voice. Crafted from some of the same team that established his similar indifferent character on Strangers With Candy, it is hearing that character's voice - because that is the style the book was written in - with its mock-authoritarian attitude, that makes the book more entertaining and enjoyable.

But, ultimately, it is what will date I Am America (And So Can You!). The book is funny now, but it lacks the enduring satire of something like Twain's Letters From The Earth (reviewed here!). Colbert appears - and this is not a complaint - to be capitalizing on his current popularity and his character's timely message. And it works. I Am America (And So Can You!) is funny, easy to read and is bound to make one laugh.

At least the first time through.

This is not a book that many people will need to come back to and the humor in it is pretty repetitive. After all, the joke that predominates the book is the character and the character is funny. But it's pretty much a one-trick pony.

It's hard not to like the trick, though.

For other humor books, please check out my reviews of:
Go The Fuck To Sleep - Adam Mansbach
The Sinner's Guide To The Evangelical Right - Robert Latham
The Onion Presents Our Front Pages


For other book reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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