Stephen Colbert performed in Barton Hall on Friday evening and one thing is certain: he did not come to Cornell to make friends. His usual gift for satire fell flat on Friday evening. It seemed as if any sarcastic remark that Colbert directed towards the audience was eclipsed by their dog-like admiration for the comedian.
Before the performance began, I noticed that the stage in Barton Hall was flanked, as usual by two large screens. The screens consisted of large projections of Colbert’s trademark — the letter C with the eagle and American flag — emblazoned on it. At this point, I was not quite sure what to expect from the performance I was about to see. The large projections and the row of frat boys behind me who were vacantly chanting “U.S.A.” seemed to indicate that not only would Colbert be in character but that it expectations for such were running high. Once Stephen Colbert began speaking, those hopes were quickly shattered.
The television personality and comedian was greeted with a standing ovation when he came onstage. Eerily enough, the experience of watching thousands of people rise in adoration and admiration of one man was somewhat reminiscent of how the Dalai Lama was received when he spoke earlier this month. The audience’s reaction to Colbert after the performance ended, however, was not as warm.
He began his performance by mentioning that he is often confused with a character he plays on television who happens to have the same name as him. However, throughout his hour-long performance, Colbert appeared to fade in and out of character, and even included a segment of “The Word”, a popular feature of his television show, “The Colbert Report”. His performance seemed like a poor attempt at an extension of his show mixed in with a tongue-lashing directed towards the audience.
His attempts at taking shots at the audience and the culture of student life at Cornell were lackluster and contrived. Colbert made sure to hit all of the generalizations made about life at Cornell — the university’s suicide rate and the area’s brutal winters — without adding any fresh barbs or witty commentary to already stale jokes. When Colbert attempted to mock the fact that a frighteningly large number of 18-24 year-olds rely on him and The Daily Show with John Stewart as their primary source of news, he failed to land any blows on the audience, who seemed oblivious to the fact that his criticism was directed towards them.
Another underwhelming aspect of the evening was when two hallmarks of tacky college events, the t-shirt cannon and college mascot, made appearances during Colbert’s performance. They were out of place, derivative and somewhat insulting to the intelligence of the audience. However, it was clear that Colbert did not expect much from students at Cornell in terms of intelligent humor after hearing so many cheers from the audience supporting his faux campaign for President of South Carolina. (Another proud moment for the Cornell community came after Colbert explained that he was not running for president and that he loves “to fuck with people,” audience members continued to ask Colbert about his campaign during the question and answer session.)
By the end of the evening, it was hard to determine which Colbert was on stage. Moreover, it seems as if his role as the host of The Colbert Report has become a golden cage for the comedian. Colbert’s blessing and curse are one in the same in that he does his job too well. When he performs, it seems as if there is an expectation that the host of The Colbert Report will be speaking. This, however, can quickly become tiresome, as proven by Colbert’s uninspiring performance.
Perhaps the best suggestion for Colbert would be to look to another member of Comedy Central royalty — Dave Chappelle — before considering his next steps as a comedian. Both actors have been hosts of wildly popular shows that bear their names. In 2005, Chappelle abruptly abandoned his show due to the fact that his fan base refused to see him as anything but characters from the show’s popular sketches despite his desire to return to stand-up comedy.
If anything, Colbert’s performance on Friday showcased the hole he has dug himself into. Hopefully, he’ll be able to find a way out of it without having to take the same route as those who have been placed in the same position as he is in now.