Misunderestimate Stephen Colbert at your peril. Just because he is an unassuming, bespectacled physical specimen whose business cards may read “TV comedian” is no reason to dismiss him as a lightweight funnyman. Since the very night he launched his own series on Comedy Central in 2005, Colbert has thrown some vicious elbows, and demonstrated a bravura that dares his enemies to, in paraphrasing his ironic hero George W. Bush, bring it on.
As both a humorist and a political and media commentator, Colbert is a stealth bomber. A gladiator of mockery. A comedy Rambo. He’s the most dangerous satirist out there right now, and neither the writers’ strike nor his failure to get on the presidential-primary ballot in his native state of South Carolina will stall his advance for long.
In fact, Colbert has reached such revered status at this juncture that even in a period of relative inactivity — not doing a show, not running for president — people are talking about him, wondering about him, and waiting for his next move. He’s the Al Gore of Comedy Central: even if he can’t or won’t run for office, he is nevertheless building anticipation. (Can a Nobel Prize be far off?)
And, like Gore, he knows it. The question is, now that he knows he has the public’s attention and the media transfixed, where will he strike next? Or is not striking, and laying back, the smarter play? Colbert is nothing if not smart, and that’s why you have to watch him — even if, at least right now on TV, you can’t.
He’s dangerous not only because his wit is so sharp, but because, in a clearly defined Red State–Blue State landscape, he unpredictably cuts both ways. When he broke his wrist in July before a show taping, Colbert turned it into a satiric opportunity by starting a campaign against “wrist violence.” He started wearing and distributing what he called a “WristStrong bracelet,” a red plastic oval similar to — and gently poking fun at — Lance Armstrong’s cancer-fighting yellow LiveStrong bracelets and the breast-cancer-awareness pink bracelets. He got Katie Couric of CBS and Brian Williams of NBC to wear one, then generated a comic mini-scandal when ABC’s Charles Gibson wouldn’t.
Poking fun at cancer awareness and liberal charities? Who is this guy? But then, after spending months collecting signatures on his cast — not only those of Couric and Williams, but of Bill O’Reilly, Tim Russert, Nancy Pelosi, and others — Colbert auctioned it on eBay in September. It sold for $17,200, and the proceeds went to returning war veterans.
He attacked Barry Manilow for winning the Emmy in a category in which Colbert was competing, then had him on The Colbert Report to sing a peace-pipe duet. He attacked Willie Nelson for having a rival flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, then challenged him to a taste-off. Attack, then embrace — the strategy seems playful, even harmless, especially when the targets are cute-and-cuddly pop-culture figures. But other times, when he’s embracing, he’s really attacking — as when he visited The O’Reilly Factor or stood behind a podium to address the Washington press corps.
And it’s in the political arena that he’s made his most bruising forays — his latest broadside coming in the form of that ultimately unsuccessful run for the presidency of the United States. It was the briefest of campaigns: he announced his candidacy on the October 16 edition of The Colbert Report and was thwarted November 1, when he was denied a spot on the official South Carolina ballot. But for those two weeks, the attention given to Colbert — by a bored press corps, to be sure — more than proved one of the points he surely set out to make.
When Colbert announced his intention to run for president as both a Republican and a Democrat, Russert devoted a dozen or so minutes of NBC’s Meet the Press to an interview with the wannabe candidate. Russert didn’t come off well in that encounter, but Colbert, a Second City improv vet, did. Colbert explained, quite nakedly, that he didn’t want to be president of the United States. He just wanted to run for it.
“There’s a difference,” he told Russert.
Comprehending that difference — and I’m not convinced Russert did — is the key to understanding whom, what, why, and how Colbert is attacking with his insidious and seditious comedy.
Cultural fifth columnist
The Colbert Report, spun off from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in October 2005, hit the ground running with perfect pitch, and perfect pitches. So much so that, in the first installment of Colbert’s new show’s signature bit, The WØRD, he coined a slippery concept called “truthiness.” That ended up being voted Merriam-Webster’s number-one word of the year — not bad for the first effort out of the gate. And it was also indicative of the range of targets that Colbert would put in his sights, everything from the language we use every day to the vapidity and self-congratulatory air of pundit-based news shows (and pundits).