5 Life Lessons Stephen Colbert Taught Us

by Chris Tognotti

It's more or less official: Stephen Colbert of the 'Colbert Report' taught campaign finance reform better than news networks did throughout the 2012 election season, according to a new study. Frankly, it's pretty easy to understand why — the protracted, dissecting saga of Colbert's personal Super PAC, with searing wit and disarming clarity, raised a dramatic amount of attention to the issue. A study led by Bruce Hardy of the University of Pennsylvania now backs this up, finding Colbert did a better job explaining a variety of easily-convoluted campaign finance issues than Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, and nightly broadcast news to boot.

According to the university's Annenberg Public Policy Center, the study of 1,232 adults found that Colbert "not only increased people’s perceptions that they knew more about political financing, but significantly increased their actual knowledge, and did so at a greater rate than other news sources."

With The Colbert Report due to end in 2014, which is cause for nostalgia on it's own — it's really been on for nine years? — it's possible now to look back, with some perspective, at some of Colbert's great teaching moments. When he takes over for David Letterman in 2015, after all, he won't be taking his on-screen persona with him. So, with appreciation, here are five things we learned from Stephen Colbert.

1. How Campaign Finance Rules and Super PACs Work

Obvious, but this one bears further mention right at the top. That's because in a meaningful sense, the Super PAC saga represented Stephen Colbert at the absolute apex of his powers in two different worlds — the entertainer, and the explainer. It was both funny and relatable enough to be clear, while still being so trenchant as to win the show a Peabody Award.

Probably the most instructive and hilarious moments in the whole affair, however, were only Colbert's. He eventually turned over control of his Super PAC, which raised over $1 million in contributions, to Jon Stewart. Then, he turned up on The Daily Show to help give a little lesson on how campaigns and Super PACs could essentially directly coordinate their operations — despite the legal reality, of course, of "not coordinating with you in any way."

2. "Migrant Workers Suffer, And They Have No Rights"

Back in 2010, Stephen Colbert took a different kind of starring turn, delivering testimony before a congressional hearing on the plights of migrant farm workers. It was in keeping with the content he'd recently been featuring on his show — in addition to filming a short stint in the fields himself, he was joined at Capitol Hill by United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, who he'd previously interviewed about UFW's "Take Our Jobs" campaign. It was launched to demonstrate how Americans were broadly unwilling to take the grueling, low-wage agricultural jobs overwhelmingly performed by migrant laborers.

In short, Colbert was clearly an ardent and motivated supporter of this cause. And in the course of his testimony, he revealed a tender and sincere part of himself that's typically hidden to the public, displaying his normally private faith by citing Biblical scripture.

I like talking about people who don't have any power. And, it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come, and do our work, but don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time ask them to leave. That's an interesting contradiction to me, and... "whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers," and these seem like the least of our brothers, right now. A lot of people are least brothers right now, because the economy's so hard. And I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish anything like that, but... migrant workers suffer, and they have no rights.

3. Don't Assume People Are Anti-Gay Because of Where They're From

In 2013, Colbert destroyed stereotype-laden expectations with the story of Mayor Johnny Cummings of Vicco, Kentucky, a small town, according to the 2010 census, of just 334 residents. Interviewing the openly-gay Cummings as part of his "People Who Are Destroying America" series, Colbert brilliantly revealed Vicco's heartwarming story of anti-bigotry and acceptance, becoming the smallest town in the U.S. to pass an ordinance against sexual orientation discrimination.

It's genuinely about as heartwarming as late-night cable TV comedy can get, and it cuts hard against stereotypical assumptions. Just because it's a tiny town in Kentucky doesn't mean bigotry rules the day.

4. How to Have Guts, Even With the President Sitting On One Side

This was probably the first, greatest moment when Colbert enshrined himself as a sort of truth-to-power liberal hero, and that makes sense, since they don't come much more powerful than a sitting President. In 2006, he was tabbed for the White House Correspondent's Dinner.

And with President George W. Bush sitting just to his right, Colbert pulled a lot less punches that people seemed to expect. Basically, this is as close to a video of Bush getting roasted as you're likely to see. A few zingers:

I believe the government that governs best governs least, and by those standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq. ... I stand by this man because he stands for things.
Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers. And rubble. And recently-flooded city squares.
"Oh, they're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. The administration is not sinking. It is soaring! If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!

5. Nobody's Perfect, So Let's Keep Talking

This is a very valuable object lesson Colbert's broadly sparkling legacy will leave us — nobody's intrinsically, perfectly what we might want. This was laid bare by the #CancelColbert controversy in late March, but that's by no means the only time Colbert has weathered a critique of his satire — he's also come under fire for transphobic cracks, as well as the use of the offensive term "trannies."

Simply put, even the politically sympathetic are going to let you down sometimes. But that's okay, as long as everyone's willing to keep talking — Colbert's glowing interview with transgender activist Janet Mock being a prime example.

Photos: Comedy Central, YouTube