Eric Foner: Colbert and the Daily Show "an opportunity not to be missed"

Culture Watch

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and was a guest on both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

After my first appearance on The Colbert Report a student remarked: “you’d better retire now, professor—you’ll never be able to top that.”  I have appeared on many TV shows, from Donahue back in the 1980s to Charlie Rose, The Open Mind, and others, but judging from the notoriety one achieves (for twenty-four hours), The Daily Show and Colbert Report are different.  Of course, these are comedy shows.  But even in this unusual venue it is possible to say something useful about history.

For my appearance on The Daily Show, I was interviewed at length in my office at   Columbia by Rob Corddry about the history of race and racism in America.  Only a tiny fragment of the interview ended up on the air, in a segment in which he played a neo-Nazi.  I had no control whatever over the snippet selected or the context in which it appeared and had to rely on the protection of a former student who worked for the show and assured me, “Don’t worry, professor, I won’t let them make you look like an idiot.”        

Things were different on The Colbert Report.  In two appearances, I was interviewed for a few minutes by Steven Colbert himself during a taping immediately prior to the broadcast, and almost everything I said ended up in the show.  To the extent that I managed to remain vaguely coherent and informative during these appearances, this resulted from adhering to a few firm resolutions:  1—Do not try to be funny.  There is only room for one comedian on the show.  The professor should act like a professor, not a comic.  2—Do not be thrown off by odd-ball questions, challenging remarks, and interruptions.  I did my best to remain relaxed during the interviews.  3—Decide in advance what one or two points you wish to make and then make them, whatever the actual questions.  My first Colbert appearance concerned the Texas textbook guidelines controversy.  I insisted that while historical interpretations are always changing, it does a disservice to students to excise parts of our history (such as the idea of separation of church and state) that do not fit a contemporary political agenda.  The second had to do with my book on Lincoln and slavery.  Knowing that Colbert himself is from South Carolina, I went on determined to point out that while people today debate whether slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War, secessionists had no doubt about this—just read South Carolina’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes of Secession.

The Stewart and Colbert programs are not the venue for complex discussions of historical ideas.  But they do enable historians to make one or two points to an audience we don’t often reach.  Given the current level of historical literacy among American citizens (not to mention political leaders), it is an opportunity not to be missed.

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