How ‘The Colbert Report’ Has Given a ‘Bump’ to Academic Guests

Scott Gries, PictureGroup

Scholars have found a surprising home on Stephen Colbert’s TV show, and even a boost in book sales, from the pompous and seemingly anti-intellectual host that he plays.
December 10, 2014

While in character as a pompous and self-aggrandizing TV host, Stephen Colbert has invited a steady stream of academics to his show, The Colbert Report, to scold and ridicule them. He called Leon Botstein, an author, symphony conductor, and longtime college president, "an intellectual" and a "smarty pants." He grilled Stephen Prothero, a religious-studies professor, on "what’s the best religion." And he criticized Jason Bond, a biology professor, for naming a spider after Neil Young and not Stephen Colbert.

Far from shying away from an interviewer who barely lets them get 10 sentences out before cutting them off with a barrage of rude questions, academics have jumped at the chance to appear on the show, which made its debut on Comedy Central nine years ago and will produce its last show this month. Some professors have even aired their jealousies of his guests in publications like this one (lightheartedly, we presume).

In fact, the show has become an improbable symbol of achievement for no small number of academics, some of whom have seen a rise in book sales and influence that the host himself calls "the Colbert bump." According to at least one political-science professor, the Colbert bump is no joke: In 2008 James Fowler of the University of California at San Diego found some evidence of a bump in campaign contributions, and even published a paper on the topic.

For the show’s many academic guests, the empirical evidence of any "Colbert bump" may fall somewhere between concrete and "truthy," but, say several of them, it’s significant nonetheless.

When Mr. Bond decided to name a spider he had discovered for Stephen Colbert (Aptostichus stephencolberti), his article about the find made the cover of Systemic Biology, and Mr. Bond says, "there’s no two ways about it"—the celebrity quotient was a factor in the play his article received. The journal even sold coffee mugs and T-shirts reprinting the cover.

Richard Hersh, a former president at Trinity College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and the author of a book assessing college teaching, We’re Losing Our Minds, was a guest in 2012. He didn’t see any particular spike in book sales but notes that Mr. Colbert demanded that he name four colleges that were teaching their students well. "The next morning," Mr. Hersh says, "every one of the schools had something come out of their publicity offices."

Mr. Botstein, the president of Bard College, has TV credentials that include interviews with Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, David Frost, and Ted Koppel, and back in the day, he had a regular gig on Firing Line with William F. Buckley. He says his Colbert appearances, in 2007 and 2010, had an impact like no other.

"You can write a book, you can give a concert. You can give a commencement address. You can give a lecture," says Mr. Botstein. "It doesn’t have the reach that Colbert has."

Reaching Young Audiences

For professors and college administrators, that the reach is heavily tilted toward young people is a plus.

Andrew Hacker, a professor emeritus who still teaches at the City University of New York’s Queens College, was a guest on the show in 2010, not long after the publication of Higher Education?, which he wrote with Claudia Dreifus. Today, he says, when students consider taking one of his courses in political science or mathematics, they Google him, and the Colbert clip comes up high.

"This is one of the first things they see, not my scholarly attainment," says Mr. Hacker, whose half-dozen books include the powerful Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal.

Mr. Hacker says the show didn’t do much for sales of the book, at least not compared to the effect of an appearance on Oprah (and subsequent reruns of that show) when Two Nations was published. But he had fun. "You can’t be solemn. You can’t be overly academic. You can’t talk about your methodology," says Mr. Hacker, who has a professorial demeanor. "If you’re a good teacher with undergraduates, you’re probably better suited for this than if you’re a research scholar."

Mr. Bond was an associate professor at East Carolina University when he named the new spider species for the rock-and-roll legend. That prompted a satirical on-air rant from Mr. Colbert, and then a telephone interview that was also broadcast. Mr. Bond was then surprised when Mr. Colbert, out of his character, telephoned him to say he’d be honored if the professor would name a spider for him too. Mr. Bond was all too happy to oblige. "I didn’t tell him that sometimes it’s a stretch to come up with a name," he says. (He admits that he’s also named a spider after a bar in La Paz, Bolivia.)

After his paper naming the Colbert spider was published, the professor finally made it on the show as a live guest. He brought along a few spiders.

"It was a great opportunity to highlight biodiversity research," says Mr. Bond, who is now a professor of biology and director of the Auburn University Museum of Natural History. And a needed one, he adds. When the show aired, and whenever it is rerun, he says, he hears from people who remark, "I didn’t realize that scientists were still discovering new species."

Other entomologists weren’t as lucky. Researchers at Arizona State University and the University of New Mexico got some attention when they named a beetle for Mr. Colbert a year later and sent him a framed print of the bug as a birthday card, but they never scored an actual appearance.

Not everyone appreciates the naming gestures. Mr. Bond says he’s heard from colleagues who feel scientists shouldn’t name species for famous people but "stick to morphological features." But he figures anything that makes taxonomy more exciting to people is worth it.

As a biologist, he has enjoyed the attention The Colbert Report has paid to science and says that seems clearly driven by the interests of the host. "It will be a bit of a loss if he doesn’t have scientists on his new show," says Mr. Bond, referring to Mr. Colbert’s next gig, as host of The Late Show, on CBS, when David Letterman retires.

Ignorance as a Prop

Despite several entreaties from The Chronicle, a publicist for Mr. Colbert said his schedule was too full to allow for an interview. In an email his executive producer told The Chronicle that she did not want to speak for him about why he featured so many academics on his current show or his intentions for the new one.

Mr. Prothero, who teaches at Boston University, has a theory. Though the show is often seen as a satire of political conservatives, he says, it’s really about anti-intellectualism. "What he really cares about, I think, is learning, and education," the professor says.

He says Mr. Colbert, who is invariably described as well read, smart, and a true wit, made that very clear to him. Mr. Colbert makes sure his guests know the "character is ignorant and your job is to disabuse him of his ignorance," says Mr. Prothero. "That’s part of what makes Colbert important in our national conversation. He wants to be funny. And he also wants to take aim at ignorance in our society when it comes to religion and politics and science."

Mr. Prothero, who appeared on the show in 2010 and 2011, says he’s impressed by Mr. Colbert’s formidable knowledge of religion. He was invited on the show after his book God Is Not One was published, to help the host pick a "new" religion to follow after giving up Catholicism for Lent.

"He can just pull up Bible passages and Catholic encyclicals," says Mr. Prothero, who also wrote American Jesus and Religious Literacy. "It’s one thing to have a fact at hand, but to have an angle on a fact at hand and be funny?"

And despite his interest in being funny, says Mr. Prothero, Mr. Colbert has also brought attention to serious books overlooked by other media. "He’s helped to make space to talk about religion in public. He’s made it a normal topic," like art and politics, he adds. "As a religious-studies scholar, that’s what you want."

The show has not only featured religious scholars; it’s also been a venue for economists, political scientists, and historians. It’s "fantastically good medicine for our culture," says Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University who says she enjoyed no particular bump after appearing on the show in 2007 except among her children, who were "hugely impressed."

In fact, judging by the number of academics The Colbert Report has had as guests through the years, the academy’s affection for the show seemed to be mutual.

"The thing we fear most," as academics, is the "marginalization" of science and other important ideas, says Mr. Botstein, the Bard president. Besides shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, "there’s not that much opportunity to reach a mass audience. And they provide it. And for that we are all grateful. Even though it’s entertainment."

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.