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).
The program itself, from the very start, has utilized a three-pronged attack:
First, there is the “Stephen Colbert” persona, a pompous know-it-all — opinion-it-all, actually, would be closer, since facts rarely get in the way — styled quite obviously, and hilariously, on Fox News Channel personality and pundit O’Reilly.
Second, there’s the show’s visual look, again emulating The O’Reilly Factor, from the dumbed-down graphics (host on the left, talking points on the right) to the flag-colored, flagrantly “patriotic” set. This manages to skewer O’Reilly specifically while also poking fun at almost every political talk show on television.
Third, there’s the way in which Colbert, in character, dispenses his opinions and interacts with his guests. Conservatives suspect he mocks them, but come on his show or invite him into their lairs anyway — partly because they covet the young and loyal audience he attracts, and partly because they like some of what he says, even if they’re almost certain he’s delivering it satirically. Liberals come on his show because they’re certain he’s one of them — until, many times, he deflates them, just as skillfully and gleefully.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” goes the advice in The Godfather. Colbert advances that a step by adding, in essence, “. . . and never let them know which is which.”