When Katie Couric embarrassed herself so thoroughly as a guest on The Colbert Report, Comedy Central’s mock-conservative news show, I found myself wondering, “What IS the best way to survive Colbert’s Bill-O’Reilly-inspired persona?” I’ve just watched the answer. It’s Colbert’s interview with Clive James, author of Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts.
The key to Colbert’s power as a satiric comic is that he NEVER drops the persona. The mistake Couric made was to assume that, since Colbert is mocking conservatives through his schtick, then he’s really on her side, so how can he hurt her? Well, he did, even prompting an “ouch” when he asked which part of her experience had best prepared her for anchoring CBS News, being a cheerleader or a sorority sister.
Clive James didn’t make that mistake. He treated Colbert’s outrageous personna as if he were a real person, not a harmless comedic pose struck by an otherwise reasonable guy. This enabled James to get in some skillful licks and to maintain his footing throughout his time in Colbert’s hot seat.