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Stephen Colbert’s show was prophesied

The final episode of “The Colbert Report” airs Thursday night.AP/Comedy Central/Scott Gries

In 1985, a cultural critic named Neil Postman wrote a short, incisive manifesto called “Amusing Ourselves to Death” about the corrosive influence of television on America.

I've been thinking about Postman's book a lot these days, in light of the slavish coverage that has greeted the end of "The Colbert Report," the faux news program in which Stephen Colbert played a hilariously pompous pundit who never met a fact he couldn't twist into conservative dogma.

Critics and fans alike have treated Colbert's decision to ditch his alter ego as a national tragedy. His departure, they suggest, deprives the culture of a powerful ethical voice, one that fileted political and media corruption with razor-sharp satire. Some have expressed shock that he would take a "straight" job hosting CBS's "The Late Show."

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But Postman saw all this coming three decades ago.

In fact, he predicted the eventual appearance of programs that would illustrate "how television recreates and degrades our conceptions of news, political debate, religious thought, etc." These programs would "take the form of parodies, along the lines of 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Monty Python.' " To survive, Postman noted, they would have to be "vastly amusing, in the television style. Thus, the act of criticism itself would, in the end, be co-opted by television. The parodists would become celebrities, would star in movies, and would end up making television commercials."

Ladies and gentleman, I give you "The Colbert Report," "The Daily Show," and the pair's many featured players (turned movie stars and pitchmen).

Before I go any further, let me state for the record that I regard Colbert as a brilliant comedian.

But over the years, he and his comrades have evolved into figures whose influence far exceeds mere court jesters. To millions of Americans, especially on the left, they function more like therapists. Night after night, they convert our distress over the state of our democracy into dependable laughs. In so doing, they have become the designated moralists of our age.

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Of course, the comedian as public moralist is nothing new. It's a tradition that extends from Aristophanes to Jonathan Swift to Mark Twain and Will Rogers, who had Americans howling at poisonous truths decades ago.

But the rise of Colbert reflects a distinct and disturbing cultural trend: our own regression from citizens capable of reforming our broken institutions to passive consumers who choose to regard civic decay as a source of entertainment.

Consider the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear that Colbert and Jon Stewart cooked up back in 2010, which was held the weekend before the midterm elections.

It was, by any objective measure, the largest event of that election cycle. It drew more than 200,000 people to the National Mall, with millions more watching from home — the vast majority of them progressives.

And yet the "rally" was little more than a variety show intended to celebrate the spirit of civility. There was no call to action, no agenda, not even an exhortation to vote. Three days later, Tea Party candidates stormed into the House of Representatives, ushering in an era of perpetual gridlock.

The blame for this lies not with Colbert, but with those of us who somehow expected that watching an earnest variety show would vanquish a sustained, lavishly funded, and highly coordinated electoral effort.

And yet, part of Colbert's cachet resided in his willingness to target specific aspects of political corruption.

His ballyhooed decision to launch a political action committee, we were told, helped his viewers (many of them young and politically disengaged) understand the chicanery of our campaign finance system. Likewise, his decision to testify before a congressional sub-committee brought increased attention to the plight of migrant workers.

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It would be more accurate to observe that these stunts actually wound up trivializing the issues in question. Rather than becoming sources of outrage and activism, they became occasions for more laughter.

Again, this is not a dig at Colbert. He was in the business of laughter. It is a criticism rightly aimed at those of us who have come to believe that our national crises will be solved, or somehow ameliorated, by watching clever satirists on television.

In his prophetic book, Postman warns that our growing dependence on TV has created a society whose standard of value is "whether or not something can grab and then hold the public's attention. It is a society in which those things that do not conform — for example, serious literature, serious political debate, serious ideas, serious anything — are more likely to be compromised or marginalized than ever before."

In such a world, morality becomes just another form of entertainment.

Postman believed America's future would look a lot more like the false utopia of "Brave New World" than the totalitarian state of "1984": "Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions."

His book posed an ominous question that travels straight to the heart of our heroic delusions when it comes to Stephen Colbert: "To whom do we complain," he demanded, "and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture's being drained by laughter?"

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Related:

4/10: Colbert to replace David Letterman on 'Late Show'

Critic's Notebook: With indelible character, Colbert made us think twice

Obama cracks jokes on 'The Colbert Report'

Colbert — or, rather, 'Colbert' — spoke his mind


Steve Almond's new book is "Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto."