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  • Rhetoric, Humor, and the Public Sphere: From Socrates to Stephen Colbert by Elizabeth Benacka
  • Matthew R. Meier (bio)
Rhetoric, Humor, and the Public Sphere: From Socrates to Stephen Colbert. By Elizabeth Benacka. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017. 167 pp.

Without question, Stephen Colbert is one of the most influential satirists in recent memory. On The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, he carved out a unique space in which to comment on and affect American public life. His "out-ofthe-box" performances, however, may have been even more compelling than his character-based Comedy Central shtick. These performances—lambasting President Bush at the White House correspondents' dinner, rallying on the National Mall with Jon Stewart, testifying before Congress in character, and creating and operating a super PAC during the 2012 presidential campaign—had a singular impact on U.S. political culture. Unsurprisingly, Colbert's hijinks have received ample treatment from humor studies, rhetoric, and communication scholars alike and have garnered cultural attention to the tune of a pair of Peabody awards. Lake Forest College assistant professor of communication Elizabeth Benacka's Rhetoric, Humor, and the Public Sphere: From Socrates to Stephen Colbert rep-resents the most recent attempt to interrogate Colbert's comedy and humor's place in contemporary culture.

The book, which presents an extended case study of Colbert's off-screen performances through the lens of classical rhetorical theory, contends that [End Page 299] humor serves a civic function in the public sphere. The book opens by locating humor in the rhetorical tradition as cataloged in the writings of Greek and Roman thinkers. After outlining this rhetorical approach to humor, the author provides an overview of Colbert's comic oeuvre beginning with his time as a correspondent for The Daily Show's Best F#@king News Team Ever and concluding with the end of his run as host of The Colbert Report. The following three chapters feature close readings of Colbert's performance at the White House correspondents' dinner, his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, and his super PAC. These chapters approach each performance as a rhetorical exemplar of a single comic genre—parody, irony, and satire, respectively. In her conclusion, Benacka turns to contemporary politics, particularly the Trump campaign and the problem of comedy's apparent political bias. She also grapples, briefly, with Colbert's performances as host of The Late Show, drawing particular attention to his Hunger Games-themed prank at the Republican and Democratic conventions as well as his occasional reprisal of his former persona for the Late Show audience. In so doing, Benacka demonstrates that Colbert's comic artistry provides rhetorical instruction for civic life.

This book does three things very well. First, it provides a comprehensive accounting of Colbert's most important public performances between 2005 and 2014. Although scholars have examined each of these performances before—and occasionally considered them together—Colbert's public pranks, which are among the most notable comic interjections into public life in recent memory, have yet to receive such comprehensive treatment, nor have Colbert's comic efforts been adequately considered on their own terms apart from his contemporaries.1 Second, Benacka's extended engagement with humor's place in classical rhetorical theory is among the finest of such treatments in the literature of humor and rhetorical studies. Benacka's facility with the classical rhetorical canon provides a particularly useful resource for the reader in search of the diffuse and elusive musings about humor and comedy of ancient thinkers including Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. Finally, Benacka's use in chapter 4 of the Socratic eiron—a character who feigns ignorance—to analyze Colbert's approach to his performances is particularly apt. This analysis of his brand of political satire is, for this reader, the most significant contribution in the book to our understanding of Colbert.

The book falls short of its potential, however, in a number of places. First, the book's argumentative rigor often hinges on unsupported understandings [End Page 300] of the rhetor's intent. The book's central claim is that classical rhetorical theory influences the contemporary practices of comic artists. If this is true, the author should be able...


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pp. 299-302
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