How Many Stephen Colberts Are There?
In addition to yesterday’s affirmation that I will actually make the print I’ve been designing for months in my head I have decided that my other New Year’s Resolution is to laugh more often, but only when appropriate.
There is a good way to start: start going to garage sales or dig in my mother’s attic until I find a set of rabbit ears to get reception to ABC (Castle), NBC (late night hosts and Thursday night comedy block–#sixseasonandamovie, and FOX (New Girl and Sunday night comedy block plus raging pro-Republican commentary).
Unfortunately some our more colorful cast of GOP characters have already dropped out of the race, but Saturday Night Live’s thirty years of broadcasts has yet to fail in making fun of politicians, and tonight’s debate on CNN will I’m sure provide much material for this week. As always Stephen Colbert is at least knee-deep in the political pundits, and election year is no exception. Take a quick look at Washington from life on The Colbert Report by New York Times magazine writer Charles McGrath. For the full story follow the link at the bottom of this page.
There used to be just two Stephen Colberts, and they were hard enough to distinguish. The main difference was that one thought the other was an idiot. The idiot Colbert was the one who made a nice paycheck by appearing four times a week on “The Colbert Report” (pronounced in the French fashion, with both t’s silent), the extremely popular fake news show on Comedy Central. The other Colbert, the non-idiot, was the 47-year-old South Carolinian, a practicing Catholic, who lives with his wife and three children in suburban Montclair, N.J., where, according to one of his neighbors, he is “extremely normal.” One of the pleasures of attending a live taping of “The Colbert Report” is watching this Colbert transform himself into a Republican superhero.
Suburban Colbert comes out dressed in the other Colbert’s guise — dark two-button suit, tasteful Brooks Brothersy tie, rimless Rumsfeldian glasses — and answers questions from the audience for a few minutes. (The questions are usually about things like Colbert’s favorite sport or favorite character from “The Lord of the Rings,” but on one memorable occasion a young black boy asked him, “Are you my father?” Colbert hesitated a moment and then said, “Kareem?”) Then he steps onstage, gets a last dab of makeup while someone sprays his hair into an unmussable Romney-like helmet, and turns himself into his alter ego. His body straightens, as if jolted by a shock. A self-satisfied smile creeps across his mouth, and a manically fatuous gleam steals into his eyes.
Lately, though, there has emerged a third Colbert. This one is a version of the TV-show Colbert, except he doesn’t exist just on screen anymore. He exists in the real world and has begun to meddle in it. In 2008, the old Colbert briefly ran for president, entering the Democratic primary in his native state of South Carolina. (He hadn’t really switched parties, but the filing fee for the Republican primary was too expensive.) In 2010, invited by Representative Zoe Lofgren, he testified before Congress about the problem of illegal-immigrant farmworkers and remarked that “the obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables.”
But those forays into public life were spoofs, more or less. The new Colbert has crossed the line that separates a TV stunt from reality and a parody from what is being parodied. In June, after petitioning the Federal Election Commission, he started his own super PAC — a real one, with real money. He has run TV ads, endorsed (sort of) the presidential candidacy of Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, and almost succeeded in hijacking and renaming the Republican primary in South Carolina. “Basically, the F.E.C. gave me the license to create a killer robot,” Colbert said to me in October, and there are times now when the robot seems to be running the television show instead of the other way around.
“It’s bizarre,” remarked an admiring Jon Stewart, whose own program, “The Daily Show,” immediately precedes “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central and is where the Colbert character got his start. “Here is this fictional character who is now suddenly interacting in the real world. It’s so far up its own rear end,” he said, or words to that effect, “that you don’t know what to do except get high and sit in a room with a black light and a poster.”
In August, during the run-up to the Ames straw poll, some Iowans were baffled to turn on their TVs and see a commercial that featured shots of ruddy-cheeked farm families, an astronaut on the moon and an ear of hot buttered corn. It urged viewers to cast write-in votes for Rick Perry by spelling his name with an “a” — “for America.” A voice-over at the end announced that the commercial had been paid for by an organization called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which is the name of Colbert’s super PAC, an entity that, like any other super PAC, is entitled to raise and spend unlimited amounts of soft money in support of candidates as long as it doesn’t “coordinate” with them, whatever that means. Of such super-PAC efforts, Colbert said, “This is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical.”
Just as baffling as the Iowa corn ads — at least to the uninitiated — were somecommercials Colbert produced taking the side of the owners during the recent N.B.A. lockout. These were also sponsored by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but they were “made possible,” according to the voice-over, by Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute. Super PAC SHH (as in “hush”) is Colbert’s 501(c)(4). He has one of those too — an organization that can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations without disclosing their names and can then give that money to a regular PAC, which would otherwise be required to report corporate donations. “What’s the difference between that and money laundering?” Colbert said to me delightedly.