The point, however, had been made, and Colbert had a new WØRD to coin: an agreed-upon concept of truth, known as “Wikiality.”
Similarly, Colbert managed to go on O’Reilly’s show, and have O’Reilly guest on his, and come out as the clear winner both times. O’Reilly made the same mistake, as host, that Russert did this past month on Meet the Press — trying to be mock funny, and a good sport, while still playing the role of tough inquisitor. The non-issue issue that both O’Reilly on Fox and Russert on NBC thus tried to zero in on with Colbert was the affected, later-in-life appropriation of the pronunciation Coal-BEAR as his last name. (He was born Stephen Colbert, with the last syllable of his last name rhyming with “dirt.”)
And thus, both O’Reilly and Russert looked silly, huffing and puffing at a straw target that refused to be blown away. Instead, they proved the point Colbert most wanted to hammer home — that just as he was “playing” Stephen Colbert the pontificating TV host, they were playing their roles, as well. And by surrendering valuable television time to Colbert, they were playing it somewhat irresponsibly.
And in playing the irrepressibly obsequious grasshopper to O’Reilly’s (unknowing) master, Colbert makes it awfully difficult for O’Reilly to hit back. “You know what I hate about people who criticize you?”, Colbert asked O’Reilly one night on The O’Reilly Factor. “They criticize what you say, but they never give you credit for how loud you say it, or how long you say it.”
Colbert can, and does, bait liberals just as often, and just as boldly. When Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem visited The Colbert Report to promote a new radio-talk network for women, Colbert ushered them to a cooking set, where they could continue to chat — while making and baking a pie. The name of the segment? “Cooking with Feminists.” He even wore a “Kiss the Cook” apron — though Fonda got the better of him, finally, by taking the apron’s advice to heart and kissing him, which left him smiling and uncharacteristically speechless. Fonda, sensing a weakness, explored and exploited it upon her next Colbert Report visit, immediately crossing from her side of the table to pounce on Colbert (as a good cougar would) and spend the entire interview on his lap, kissing and nuzzling him into near incoherence. Score one for the feminists, and for the validity of that old 1960s strategy, “Make love, not war.” (All that and more, by the way, is available on the new Best of The Colbert Report DVD from Comedy Central.)
Colbert isn’t often flustered, however. Whether he’s eviscerating congresspersons — and their constituencies — in his ongoing 435-part series Better Know a District (most famous victim: Democratic Florida congressman Robert Wexler, whom Colbert jokingly corralled into saying, “I enjoy cocaine because it’s a fun thing to do”) or announcing his on-its-face ludicrous run for the presidency, Colbert usually is entertaining with one hand and slapping his chosen subject with the other.
He’s not deterred easily, either. Running for president of the United States is hard enough, especially when you aren’t allowed on the ballot of the one state to which you applied — and harder still when your very pulpit, a post-prime-time cable TV show, is stopped cold by a Hollywood writers’ strike. Yet at each step, Colbert got his laughs, and made his points.