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.