I’ve been a fan of Stephen Colbert for a long time, ever since his days on The Daily Show and continuing through his years doing The Colbert Report. One reason is that his comedy is, in general, the sort that skeptics appreciate. For example, his recurring “The Wørd” segment on The Colbert Report, for instance, brilliantly deconstructed the deceptive ways that politicians and others use language. Then, he coined the term “truthiness,” which describes the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Then, of course, there’s his regular segment, which debuted in 2015, on The Tonight Show With Stephen Colbert mocking the expensive quackery and nonsense that Gwyneth Paltrow sells through her Goop lifestyle brand. In it, Colbert touts his own lifestylbrand, Covetton House.
So it was that when I first learned that Gwyneth Paltrow would be a guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, I was puzzled. The reason, of course, is because over the last two years, through his Covetton House segments, Colbert had turned Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle brand Goop into a running punchline in which he periodically mocked all the New Age nonsense sold by Goop, as I noted in one of my discussions of all the quackery and pseudoscience marketed primarily to credulous women with, as Mitchell and Webb would put it, more money than sense. Each segment follows the same general pattern. In the first half, Colbert comedically mocks various overpriced nonsensical items sold by Goop, and in the second set he parodies them by introducing Covetton House products patterned on the previously mocked Goop products. Indeed, I find it worth posting a couple of examples, because Colbert’s mockery was so spot on and devastating, For instance, here is where he introduced a fake Covetton House “lifestyle summit”:
And here he is in a sketch mocking the “healing stickers” Goop made the news for advertising last summer:
Here, Colbert makes fun of the new Goop magazine:
And what “lifestyle brand” would be complete without a catalog of holiday offerings?
Pretty darned funny, right? Colbert and his writers demonstrated a true gift for skewering the pseudoscience, quackery, and New Age silliness that is Goop.
Fast forward to 2018, and we have a very different Stephen Colbert. Here he is with Gwyneth Paltrow, who is taking advantage of her appearance to play along with comedy that, unlike previous Covetton House segments, doesn’t really draw blood but instead serves as, more or less, a commercial for this weekend’s In Goop Health summit in New York:
You can see why I was so disappointed. This is a classic example of a promotional appearance, in which Paltrow gamely plays along with the parody, which, unlike previous Covetton House segments, doesn’t really hit home very hard at all, other than a brief dig at an $84 water bottle with an amethyst crystal inside to “infuse your water with positive energy,” in which he joked that you have to be careful drinking from this bottle or you might “infuse your trachea with a big rock.” The rest of the sketch consists of lame jokes in which Colbert’s Covetton House persona worshipfully gushes over Paltrow; offers her a Yoni egg, allowing Paltrow to tell him that you don’t eat them; prompts Paltrow to deliver a joke about her smoothie containing the “tears of butterflies during Oprah’s Golden Globes speech” (which is mildly amusing); pokes gentle fun at the “sound bar” at In Goop Health in which “binaural” sounds are offered to aid in meditation; makes lame jokes about bath salts as drugs; and in general burnishes Paltrow’s Goop brand. It ends up with a gag in which Colbert uses one of Paltrow’s face creams that is portrayed as “too strong for him.”
Immediately following the commercial break, we’re treated to this nauseatingly fawning interview:
In it, Paltrow is basically allowed to promote herself, her Goop brand, and her In Goop Health summit. It starts with a softball question of why she started her Goop lifestyle brand, in which she basically brags how she started the brand out of curiosity and wondering whether she could “get answers” and actually launch a company and now has 150 people working for her. The next softball is a the question, “What do you say to people who roll their eyes at a catalog where you can buy an island in Belize?” My reaction was: WTF? The Goop catalog features an island you can buy? Her response is that it’s a “ridiculous but awesome” guide, after which she goes on about how Goop offers products at “all price ranges” and how Goop “believes in really good products.”
I guess that these “really good products” must include jade eggs that women can stick up their vaginas, magic stickers that supposedly readjust your energy, and psychic vampire repellent, and the like. Oh, and coffee enemas, one of the ultimate forms of fashionable “detoxification” quackery as I’ve discussed more times than I can remember. Coffee enemas are, of course, a staple of cancer quackery, particularly the Gerson protocol but also the Gonzalez protocol. There is no good scientific evidence that they improve health outcomes for any condition, much less “detoxify.” (Let’s just put it this way. Your liver is quite good at “detoxifying” your body and, unless it’s failing for some reason, does not need help. Promotion of quackery like this has real world consequences.
Paltrow also brags about how much “great content” there is on the Goop website, while Colbert shows off her second issue of Goop, which is all about sex and love. Colbert also gushes over the size of the rock on Paltrow’s engagement ring, her relationship with her ex-husband, when the next Iron Man movie will be coming out, and other lightweight topics for a celebrity interview. Basically, Colbert was fully and unnecessarily complicit in selling the Goop brand on his show.
Now, I’m not so naive as to have believed fully that Colbert was enough of a skeptic not to do this, but I had hoped, based on his long history, that maybe he was. I also realize that it’s all show biz here; so you never know how seriously Colbert (or any other comedian) takes his parodies. Did he do them because he was really alarmed at all the fashionable nonsense Goop is promoting, or did he do them because Goop and its wares are such an easy target for comedy? After this segment, I’m starting to think the latter. Maybe I was naive after all.
Be that as it may, I remind Colbert that Goop is about more than just fluffy, silly nonsense like jade eggs, magic energy stickers, and water bottles with amethysts in them to infuse your water with energy. It’s part of the mainstreaming of pseudoscience and quackery. Goop also strikes back when attacked, such as when Paltrow ordered her quack doctors to slime Dr. Jen Gunter, one of the foremost critics of Goop, with a condescending, misogynistic, mansplaining hit piece. I can’t help but note that one of those doctors, Dr. Aviva Romm, appeared to distance herself from Goop after that incident. Maybe Goop was too much even for her.
Finally, let’s not forget that the latest In Goop Health summit, which Colbert so gamely promoted by having Paltrow on his show, is a veritable quackfest. One of its main speakers is Dr. Kelly Brogan, a “holistic” psychiatrist who denies that HIV causes AIDS, advocates treating depression “naturally,” and is rabidly antivaccine, as evidenced by her publication of an e-book that features basically every antivaccine trope you can think of, a veritable cornucopia of antivaccine misinformation. As I’ve noted in both my posts about her, Brogan considers the late Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez her mentor and clearly idolizes him. Gonzalez, of course, was a cancer quack who advocated a regimen consisting of many supplements plus coffee enemas to treat pancreatic cancer, basically his special variant of the Gerson protocol. Through a cherry picked “best case series” of twelve patients with advanced pancreatic cancer treated with his protocol who did better than expected, his advocates finagled an NIH grant to do a randomized trial of his protocol. When the results were published, it was a disaster—for patients on the Gonzalez protocol, whose median survival was around one-third that of patients receiving standard-of-care. The Gonzalez protocol was, not unexpectedly, worse than useless for pancreatic cancer. Gonzalez, of course, made excuses for the failure of his protocol, but none of them could explain such a huge difference in outcomes between the two groups in the trial. None of this stopped him from, in his later years, claiming that he could have saved Steve Jobs if only Jobs had come to him. Ultimately, last year he died of what appeared to be a heart attack, which led über-quack Joe Mercola’s girlfriend Erin Elizabeth to declare him a victim of pharma hit squads.
So what we have here is Stephen Colbert promoting a conference, In Goop Health, where tickets range from $650 for the “Turmeric” level to $2,000 for the Ginger level and both levels are sold out. The conference touts “cutting-edge panels of health-defining doctors and experts, along with a hall of experiential activations, ranging from binaural beats meditation to acupressure and tarot card readings.” Speakers include not just Brogan, but other quacks like Dr. Sara Gottfried, whose “expertise” includes “expertise includes natural hormone balancing, the brain/body connection, and how to optimize the gene/environment interface”; Dr. Tazia Bhati, who specializes in the quackery of functional medicine; and Karen Newell, founder of Sacred Acoustics, who touts such nonsense as “develop such skills as lucid dreaming, astral travel, telepathy, remote viewing, self-hypnosis, and different forms of energy healing.” The list goes on.
Again, I’m not so naive as not to appreciate that this is all show biz or to realize that it’s too much to expect a comedian to be a skeptic. Show business is basically artifice, and the Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report was never real. Rather, he was a character patterned largely on Bill O’Reilly to skewer right wing pundits and the misinformation spewed by media outlets like FOX News. Even so, I always liked to think that, in order to successfully create and portray such a character, there had to be at least a grain of understanding of skepticism. Certainly, Colbert’s Covetton House bits appeared to be the work of genuine skeptics; that is, until now. While I’m not so clueless as to expect that Colbert would have Paltrow on his show and attack her, other than gentle ribbing. That’s not what late night talk shows do, by and large. Their purpose is to promote whatever projects the celebrity guests on the show are doing or products they are selling. I just wish that, in this case, Colbert and his producers had just said no to having Paltrow on their show to promote hers. They didn’t have to have her on. They didn’t have to promote her brand so obsequiously. Sadly, they chose to do so.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s conquest of Stephen Colbert and The Late Show lead me to believe that I was too optimistic when I asked earlier this year whether she and Goop are winning against skeptics. The answer to that question is clearly yes.