Political humor has become a contact sport.
Stephen Colbert, D.F.A., a South Carolina native and host of the television program The Colbert Report (the two ending T’s are silent), has filed papers asking the state’s Democratic Party to put his name on the ballot.
It didn’t work – party officials said “no” – but it’s still a brilliant piece of political theater. Colbert, of course, is the creation of comic actor Stephen Colbert, former correspondent for The Daily Show, and a recently published author whose first book, I Am America (And So Can You!) easily climbed the best-seller lists. His group of “friends” on the popular social networking site Facebook surpassed 1 million within a few days of its debut.
America has not always proven to have the most subtle sense of humor when it comes to satire. And journalists and politicians are prone to being either disdainful or starstruck when someone like Colbert enters the arena. We’re seeing both as Colbert mounts his campaign – think he’ll ask voters to write him in? – and it’s almost as funny as the man himself.
Political wisemen Tim Russert and Larry King gave Colbert very respectful and amused receptions on their programs, with Russert playing along with the gag and treating Colbert as a serious candidate. Maureen Dowd turned her N.Y. Times column over to Colbert. In the Kansas City Star, a high school student wrote an op-ed that declared, “In a country already divided politically, the last thing we need is for the results of an important presidential election to be skewed by a late-night comedian.” MarketWatch columnist Jon Friedman called Colbert (and Jon Stewart) “failed actors” who kind of stumbled into the talk-show gimmick.
But before condemning Colbert as some sort of clown who has no business messing in the serious business of either journalism or politics, note Colbert’s explanation for abandoning his initial plan to file for inclusion on both party’s ballots. The Democratic primary has a $2,500 filing fee, while the GOP’s is $35,000. As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.
That’s what makes Colbert the perfect remedy for the age of Bush. It’s all the nuttiness you may desire, leavened with humor and humanity. For example, in a 2004 article by Ron Suskind, a Bush aide mocked “what we call the reality-based community,” declaring that “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Colbert is famous for saying, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
A key part of the appeal of the character is that the audience is invited into the process – and not just by casting their election-day votes. “Stephen Colbert” is a very arrogant character, very demagogic and messianic, and it’s a lot of fun for the audience to join in on the process of feeding his outsized ego and delusions of power. For example, Colbert introduced the concept of “wikiality” and encouraged his viewers to edit an entry on African elephants; so many did so, that Wikipedia had to lock the page down. He encouraged his viewers to vote online to name a Hungarian bridge after him, and handily won the contest. My sense is that his candidacy is not a serious effort, or that he is not (at this time) an actual symbol of voter dissatisfaction. But it doesn’t matter. His campaign – even the idea – is hilarious.
The brilliance of Stephen Colbert is not just how well he parodies conservative commentators – because he’s not just tweaking the FOX News crowd, but also such crusading CNN anchors as Anderson Cooper and Lou Dobbs – but because he provides an antidote to our times. There’s much that is bad in the daily news and you can either find the humor or wallow in despair. I know where I prefer to go: straight to the Good Book (in this case, Colbert’s).
If a Harp Seal needs money that badly, it should do what I do. I hold a little fundraiser every day. It’s called Going to Work… And don’t give me “Harp seals can’t survive in an office habitat,” because that excuse doesn’t hold water any more, thank you very much, Americans with Disabilities Act.
This is the other key difference between the actual pundits and the fake one: wit, a wit that comes from actual caring and insight. In a 2006 interview with TV critic Tim Goodman, Colbert, the actor, described his character as living a “completely unexamined life,” which means that “he can indict himself with what he says and constantly say things that prove the falsity of his beliefs without knowing it.” In a 2005 interview with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, Colbert said that the key to his satire is simple: “If you maintain your humanity, if you don’t think like a joke is more important than being humane, like not talking about tragedy or not questioning someone’s dearly held beliefs religiously, if you can keep in mind a certain level of humanity, then that’s a good guide to what you can or cannot talk about.” Think conservative commentator Ann Coulter knew of this principle when she said of outspoken 9/11 widows: “I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much”? Probably not.
But while Stephen Colbert provides solace for liberals, I would be a little worried about him if I were a conservative – and not because of the South Carolina primary. I would be concerned that a fake conservative TV pundit could say such crazy things and sound so much like the real pundits that people would start to blur the difference. One last bit from Colbert’s book provokes the question: Is this really satire?
As gay people are increasingly integrated into society and accepted as friends and coworkers, there is a new threat looming on the horizon.
The threat that we will forget to feel threatened by them.
On this final battlefield, the greatest casualty of all may be our anger.
So I, for one, am delighted by the whole thing. Just imagine if Colbert actually got enough votes to become a spoiler – someone who could draw away from a front-runner. If that happens, Colbert will have made a very important point: A vote for his bombastic, insensitive, over-the-top moronic egotist is a entertaining way for voters to say “none of the above,” rather than simply staying at home and not voting at all.
Would his critics be able to handle the truthiness of that reality?