Jon Stewart, Colbert’s mentor and chief benefactor in this “fake news,” question-all-sides approach, blazed the trail that Colbert now follows: build a loyal consistency via a sarcastic, intelligent TV show. Leverage your popularity by expanding your reach, but not to cinema (the usual platform — often an elephant’s graveyard — for ambitious TV shows looking for spin-offs), rather to the book world (a thinking-person’s medium). Use your TV platform to attract some newsmakers and blitzkrieg others. And when other TV hosts, hungry for a taste of your savvy young audience, invite you on their shows, only appear on the ones you like least —
and then attack, and make them look foolish on their home court.
Stewart did it with America (The Book), a fake textbook banned by Wal-Mart, by deconstructing politics and media on his Daily Show, and by eviscerating Tucker Carlson on CNN’s Crossfire. A few years later, and Colbert, like Stewart, has his own nightly TV platform, a best-selling book — his I Am America (And So Can You!) just topped the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for the fourth straight week — and his own colorful history of toying with targets, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, then pouncing.
Colbert’s first infamous triumph in this regard came at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, with President Bush and the First Lady on the dais.
“To sit here at the same table with my hero, George W. Bush . . . somebody pinch me,” Colbert told the crowd. Then, explaining that a pinch might not be enough to wake him from his dream, Colbert alluded to Vice-President Dick Cheney’s recent hunting mishap by asking, “Somebody shoot me in the face.” That was just for starters.
Colbert then took aim, as if brandishing a bazooka of his own, at the president, members of his cabinet, other branches of government and, just as ruthlessly, the press corps itself. In the room that night, Colbert was met with a lot of stares and silence — but he wasn’t playing to these smug inside-the-beltway news veterans. He was playing to a wider audience, the one that, like him, suspected that Washington reporters had gotten too cozy and self-satisfied, and deserved to be ridiculed, if not scolded, for their part in lowering the level of national political discourse. He reached that audience very effectively: just the clip of President Bush’s isolated-camera reactions as Colbert spoke has been viewed on YouTube more than one million times.
Colbert has utilized this stealth-attack approach time and again. He’s a sort of cultural fifth columnist, attacking venerated aspects of American society from the inside. He’ll tackle things for laughs, sure, because that’s what comedians do. But he also makes larger points about the absurdity of our blind devotion to processes and products, from the Electoral College to Wikipedia. Instead of just delivering a rant about the questionable veracity of the entries on the communal Web reference Wikipedia, Colbert used part of one show to demonstrate a devastating stunt, actually logging onto the free encyclopedia and knowingly adding incorrect information, while urging his viewers to do the same. The topic: elephants. The claim: their population had tripled in three months. The result: more than 20 articles appended with false information before Wikipedia shut down the prank.