“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge. ‘Yes’ is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes.’”
These words were said by Stephen Colbert in 2006 to the graduating class at Knox College. He opened his commencement address by admitting that he wasn’t sure if Knox had invited him or his character, the host of “The Colbert Report” who shares his name. The show had been on the air for less than a year. He decided to let the audience figure it out for itself.
In 2007, I performed Stephen’s Knox College commencement address at high school speech and debate competitions. I considered myself to be on a first-name basis with Jon Stewart and him; it was always Jon and Stephen, never Stewart and Colbert. They were brilliant and funny beyond what I can express, but what struck me most is the energy they brought to the job. They fed off the crowd’s enthusiasm, sure, but they were so locked in that you felt they could bring as much excitement and charisma to an empty studio. I watched them every night, without fail, and I wanted to do what they did. More than that, I wanted to be in the element like they were.
Speech became the defining activity of my time in high school, but I performed less and less once I came to Wesleyan. It’s not that acting or making people laugh (on a good day, at least) became any less fulfilling. Wesleyan just offered me so many more opportunities than I ever had before, and I didn’t want to devote myself to any one thing.
That same philosophy backed my decision not to do a senior thesis. I wanted to get the most I could out of my classes, my extracurriculars, and my community while I was still around. Throwing all of myself into one capstone endeavor was not something I was inspired to do.
Instead, I made an effort to work with as many talented people as possible on the interesting projects they were doing. This basically amounted to me working on a bunch of theses. In some way, big or small, I became involved with six of them.
I don’t want this to turn into Josh’s Laundry List of Cool and Accomplished Friends, but I do want to tell one story.
Lindsay Schapiro ’14 poured more ambition into “Highway Alive” than I have put into the combined sum of everything I’ve ever written. In her music thesis, she wanted to explore authenticity in music-making and self-identity as it relates to a person made into a symbol and how these questions pertain to our 21st-century world, all examined through a simultaneous dramatization of “The Grapes of Wrath” and a reimagining of Bruce Springsteen’s rise to superstardom, with an African-American actor in the role of Bruce.
The resulting product was a three-act rock opera that involved the audience following the actors across High Street from 200 Church to Eclectic for a full-on concert environment. Lindsay asked me to work on the script with her, and the scope of her exploration terrified me. This play was goddamn enormous, and I was nervous that the messages would not survive the transfer from the page to the stage.
I did not see a second of “Highway Alive” until I went to the final performance, and the vitality of the show floored me. The live band blew the roof off 200 Church, and Matt Lynch ’15 delivered a totally engaging, powerful portrayal of Springsteen; the 19-person cast turned out other great performances, but I can’t recall seeing someone at Wesleyan act with such star power.
That is, other than Schapiro. After writing the music and the book and putting this whole show together, she played the role of the quintessential groupie. She sang and cheered and freaked out over the E Street Band as the situation dictated, rapt in her work in such an infectious way that the audience couldn’t help but strive to match her energy. Oh, and when she wasn’t working the crowd, she was conducting the band, which was somehow even more compelling. There was one song in which I found myself looking away from the singer and instead watching her lead the band. She bounced on her toes, dancing to keep the beat, sometimes closing her eyes and just feeling the music. The word “present” never really means anything when describing a performer, but she made me feel weight not normally found behind the empty platitude.
Her passion moved me. She should be so proud of what she did. I wish I had done something like it. But I still have the same anxiety about leaving that I did before, and the completion of theses only makes the end more real. It’s been great, and I will remember the peaks for the rest of my life, but the end is very near.
So I wasn’t in my ideal emotional state when I learned Stephen Colbert was leaving “The Colbert Report” to replace David Letterman on “The Late Show.”
“I won’t be doing the new show in character, so we’ll all get to find out how much of him was me,” Colbert told The New York Times. “I’m looking forward to it.”
By the nature of the show, “The Colbert Report” was unlikely to become a permanent institution like “The Late Show” is or even “The Daily Show” seems destined to be. Nine years is an extraordinary run for Colbert’s well-intentioned idiot, an elaboration on a supporting character from his earlier days on “The Daily Show.” No matter what he accomplishes in his new network gig, it’s hard to imagine Colbert’s version of a standard late-night host usurping his satirical alter ego as the highlight of his career. And it’s harder to imagine Comedy Central filling his timeslot with anyone who could replicate what “Colbert” provided to the late-night scene; the same can’t be said for an alternative “Late Show” host.
There’s a sense of loss that comes with an end of an era, the fear that greatness is solely property of the past. But Colbert is moving on because he sees greatness in the future, too. He has the strength to say yes, so he is, and he is beginning something new.
And that’s The Word.
Cohen is a member of the class of 2014.