The Zen and the Damaged

A fan site for fake newspeople

The Zen On May - 6 - 2012

Given: If there’s one question besides “Who should this character hook up with?” guaranteed to start a fervent, polarized, opinionated fandom discussion, it’s “What Hogwarts house should this character be in?”

What follows is my reading of “Stephen”, Jon, and a few correspondents, as well as notes about other arguments TDS/TCR fandom has made along the way. (Hat tip to Lauren and Ashley for being particularly thoughtful.)

As usual, this is character analysis (as opposed to real-person psychoanalysis) unless otherwise noted.

“Stephen Colbert”

Let’s start with the obvious: Stephen is not nearly loyal or reliable enough to be a Hufflepuff, and so anti-intellectual and fact-allergic that Ravenclaw is right out.

There’s a lot to be said for putting him in Slytherin, much of it not good. His rhetoric lines right up with the reactionary traits and bigotry masquerading as tradition seen in old Slytherin families. (“Where do these Muggle-borns get off, taking jobs from hard-working pureblood wizards?”) He’s full of ambition, and willing to pursue it by whatever means necessary, as showcased in ventures like his 2008 presidential campaign: pandering to party leaders and the public alike, shamelessly plugging his sponsors, and not above using money in less-than-ethical ways. In the 2012 election season he’s stuck to throwing around unlimited anonymous cash, exploiting as many legal loopholes as he and lawyer Trevor Potter (no relation) can find.

On the other hand, Stephen’s not particularly cunning. Whenever a complication arises with his Super PAC, his strategy consists of “look sad and worried until Trevor reveals a piece of paper that fixes it.” His ability to think about things long-term or weigh their consequences is pretty much nil: after watching for a while, you get the sense that his ambition is based solely on a vague fantasy of “power = good.” It doesn’t help that he’s highly attuned to the direction and approval of higher authorities — from God to “Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly to Santa Claus. If he ever got real power, he wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Now, the whole charge-right-in, guns-blazing, plan-what-plan? approach to life is totally Gryffindor. So is the “who needs subtlety when you can yell at things?” cornerstone of his philosophy. And then you get events like Operation Iraqi Stephen, which was — almost accidentally (certainly it took some last-minute coercion) — brave, even noble.

In spite of his greedy and self-serving impulses, one of Stephen’s core traits is the desire to do the right thing. The character is based on the improv archetype of the “well-intentioned, poorly-informed, high-status idiot” — emphasis here on “well-intentioned.” This isn’t necessarily true for real people with similar positions, but when Stephen takes a stand like opposition to gay library cards, it isn’t based on sly self-interest any more than it is on facts or fairness. It’s based on a sincere and true belief that society will be damaged if we violate the sanctity of traditional book-borrowing.

All this falls right in line with the Gryffindor tendency to see things in terms of heroes and villains. Slytherins see things in terms of power and influence, and are more likely to fall in with whoever seems to be winning at the time. Stephen does a certain amount of the latter (see his last-minute endorsement of Obama), but in general, there are Good Guys and Bad Guys and it is your Duty to side with the Good Guys. This shapes his loyalties (to America!), and is even visible in his betrayals, which he may see as loyalty to a higher principle. (For instance: turning on Jon…because he believes Jon is on the Wrong Path, and action must be taken to bring him back to Right.)

Honestly, I think this might be one of those situations where the Sorting Hat takes a while to think it over, until Stephen demands to be put in whichever House he’s already decided on. In which case, it depends entirely on how he perceives it. Are Slytherins a set of blue-blood old-money elitists, with Gryffindors the heroic salt-of-the-earth scrappers? Or are Gryffindors a bunch of rabble-rousing tree-hugging house-elf-liberating activists, while Papa Bear was a Slytherin and really, what more do you need to know?

One clue might come in the adventures of Tek Jansen, the Gary Stu character who reveals a lot about how Stephen sees himself. And Tek is basically a one-dimensional Gryffindor. He doesn’t care about power or influence, just blowing up the Bad Guys, as loudly and dramatically as possible.

Either way, it’s clear that Stephen’s House preference would be based on which one he thought was Best For the Wizarding World. Which means that, if the Sorting Hat left it up to him, it might be a Gryffindor trait that ultimately put him in Slytherin.

My final call: Gryffindor. He’s not cut out to be a Slytherin long-term, and I think the Sorting Hat would figure that out.

Daily Show Correspondents

None of the Stewartettes have as much consistent characterization as “Stephen”. As a group, I’d be inclined to call them a bunch of Slytherins, although not necessarily competent ones. Lots of jockeying for position, with each other and over Jon; lots of ruthlessly going after a story (and the personal status that comes with it).

There are a handful of correspondents and contributors that I’m up for calling individually, even though the traits involved may be abandoned when a segment calls for something different:

Jessica Williams only just arrived on the scene, but plays well to a certain kind of college-student “there is bad stuff in the world, and I’m going to do…something…about it!” unfocused sense of activism. Gryffindor.

John Hodgman is all about facts and expertise (made-up or not). Ditto for his distaff counterpart Sarah Vowell (with more obscure-but-true facts on her end). Ravenclaw.

Wyatt Cenac has a way with good-natured bumbling about, making friends and taking things in stride. Hufflepuff.

Kristen Schaal gets an ongoing focus on solidarity among women and fairness in general, with a bright-eyed conviction that we can totally rock this gender equality thing. Hufflepuff.

Larry Wilmore also focuses on fairness, but his approach is more dismayed-cynic with a talent for strategy. Plus, there’s his obvious glee in toying with Jon. Slytherin.

Olivia Munn also enjoys toying with Jon, and approaches the job with cunning self-interest. (This also dovetails with her career IRL, which involves a lot of non-flashy Endurance Of Things That Suck — see, writings about creepy sexist working conditions — in service of long-term goals.) Slytherin.

Jon Stewart

Since Jon of all the cast spends the most time as “himself” rather than taking on a character, fandom is more likely to think of him in terms of his real personality — complex, human, not reducible to literary archetypes. No surprise, he’s been fervently argued into all four Houses. He’s fair and hardworking! He’s smart and thoughtful! He’s cunning and influential! He’s brave and loyal! Which of these are his “core” or “defining” traits? Depends on who you ask.

Granted, when applied to actual people the concept is pretty dubious in the first place. But for entertainment’s sake, I’m going to take what we see of him in public and run with it.

It’s no big stretch to rule out Gryffindor. Even when Jon takes a gallant and principled stand, it’s in a more characteristically Hufflepuff way: well-planned and determined but not flashy or dramatic, appealing to basic fairness and decency rather than hero-complex savior imagery.

Slytherin, too, doesn’t really fit. He shies away from any suggestion of personal power like it’s an allergen; when there’s someone he truly dislikes, he’s not exactly subtle; and his thoughtfulness is applied too straightforwardly to be called cunning. When it comes to guests who disagree with him, he approaches them like a Ravenclaw: a basic interest in getting the facts right.

(You’ll notice that he’s come down as the exact opposite of “Stephen”, which helps explain why the two play off each other so well.)

On the Hufflepuff side, then, we have hard work and a constant interest in fairness. Related is his conviction that most people are basically decent and reasonable. It doesn’t mean he can’t confront people who are seriously wrong, but it does result in guests who come away feeling they were treated respectfully, not just brought on to be a punching bag. There’s a sense of teamwork there, too: he’s quick to give due credit to his staff and crew, both on-screen and in pre-taping Q&As.

When it comes to Ravenclaw, there’s no denying he’s sharp, and is more likely to read a guest’s dense political memoir or well-researched history than to watch their movie. Not only that, it seems every week there’s another interview where he asks them to stick around another five (…or ten…or…) minutes. (You wonder how much he was holding back during the days.) This is a guy who seriously relishes the chance to talk with smart and experienced people about the areas of expertise.

In cases where Jon has a fundamental disagreement with the guest, the extended interviews seem less like an indulgence and more like a compulsion: to wrestle arguments he doesn’t like down to the bare facts, in order to pin down their precise failures in logic. One time he brought in a whole new expert — which, granted, was a pretty pointed thing to do, but the focus remained squarely on the earlier guest’s data.

In general he proceeds with an almost naïve sense that people should come around once a hole is exposed in their logic, irrespective of any other factors (pride, stubbornness, audiences to pander to, etc). Years ago he was famously quick to snap when that didn’t turn out to be the case. He’s been sheepish about the incident since, and seems to have gotten more self-aware about how he should expect people to respond in these cases, but the idea of prioritizing anything above data and thoughtful analysis still doesn’t seem to come naturally.

My guess: Ravenclaw. As if the paragraph lengths hadn’t made it clear.

Friends of the Shows

Neil Degrasse Tyson is a Ravenclaw.

I don’t actually have any others in mind for this section; I just felt like pointing that out.

Further suggestions, as well as disagreements with any of the above, are welcome!

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