ONTD Political

Is Stephen Colbert just kidding?

1:48 am - 01/21/2012


Is Stephen Colbert just kidding?


Friday, Jan 20, 2012 8:45 AM Pacific Standard Time
As the comedian holds a South Carolina rally with Herman Cain, an expert unravels what's real and what's satire
By Emma Mustich

Later today, Stephen Colbert will host a rally with Herman Cain in South Carolina. It’s part of his increasingly complicated involvement in his home state’s GOP primary. Colbert wants voters to back Cain as a way of supporting Colbert’s run for “president of the United States of South Carolina.” Write-in candidates aren’t allowed, hence the partnership with the one-time GOP front-runner, who qualified for the ballot before dropping out of the race amid controversy.

Who’s kidding who? Is the joke on Cain? On South Carolina voters? Or is Colbert not joking at all? His super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorow, Tomorrow — technically now in the capable hands of his colleague Jon Stewart — has run a number of joke ads on TV. (One involves a lengthy attack on Colbert himself: “America is in crisis, and Stephen Colbert is turning our election into a circus. … Why is the ‘t” in his name silent? What else is he silent about? Letting murderers out of jail?”) But Colbert and Stewart also spent a significant segment of Tuesday night’s “Daily Show” explaining the dos and don’ts of super PAC coordination — a satirical cover for discussion of an undeniably serious subject.

Just what is the comedian — or is he a civic activist — up to? Russell Peterson, author of “Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke,” provided some insight into the evolving Colbert phenomenon.


How are Stephen Colbert’s recent and planned political activities — his super-PAC formation, possible run for “president of the United States of South Carolina” and upcoming event with Herman Cain, for example — different from what he has done in the political sphere before (e.g., congressional testimony, public rallies in D.C.)?

His campaign and super PAC activities are different in scale — they’re more sustained efforts, and are bound to get more attention than one-off things like the times he’s testified before Congress — but I think the intentions are the same.

Do these activities count as comedy? Is there something else going on here — a genuine attempt to educate people about the rules of super PACs, for instance, or to seriously sway the electorate? Or is it a mix — some kind of civic-minded performance art?

They are certainly comedy, and on those rare occasions Colbert has been pressed to give a “sincere” (by which I only mean “out of character”) answer as to what he is up to, he seems to suggest that they are only comedy. (From the recent New York Times Magazine piece: “Colbert says that education isn’t his aim with the super PAC — being funny is.”) But a comedian — and a satirist, especially — operates under the professional obligation, when cornered, to claim that he is only kidding. I think your phrase “civic-minded performance art” captures what he is actually doing pretty well. I do think being funny is his first priority, but he is definitely educating people about super PACs and the real-life consequences of the Citizens United decision. And even if he is making sport more than he is crusading, he’s performing a real public service by illuminating this. He has almost certainly done more to educate the public about the campaign ads they see, and how the Citizens United decision has effectively sanctioned what amounts to “money laundering” in hiding the origins of such advertising, than anyone in the mainstream media. This is partly because he can present a potentially dry and confusing topic in an entertaining way. But it is also because he is unhindered by the obligation of “mainstream” journalists and news organizations to maintain the appearance of objectivity.

The subject of campaign finance is fraught with challenges: It’s potentially dry, and a simple explanation doesn’t do much to demonstrate its importance and potential impact on the political process. The best, “straight” way to tell the story would be to focus on one or two examples of the process in action — but that would mean, first of all, “singling out” some candidates’ ads, which is not “balanced.” An even bigger challenge is that the heart of the issue is the lack of transparency. You can’t “follow the money” to get to the bottom of who funds these ads — that’s the whole point. But Colbert is in a position to exploit both his fame and his identity as a comedian to create an example. The whole thing has been an incredibly patient, sustained explication of the process Citizens United has enabled — he’s been at this for months. He created the PAC — hired former McCain campaign counsel Trevor Potter to draw up the paperwork, filed with the FEC, collected contributions, created ads that ran in Iowa (and also on his program, and on cable and network news — where “original” reporting on these issues has been scarce, at best), “transferred” control of the PAC to Jon Stewart, etc. Even if the main intent is to create a kind of running gag for the show and the Colbert character, it is, at the same time, long-form journalism — something that is necessary to really explicate such a complex issue, but also something that is very difficult to pull off in the world of “straight” journalism nowadays, for a lot of reasons.

Do you think people — Colbert fans and general observers — understand what he’s up to? And if they don’t, is this ambiguity intentional?

I think the ambiguity is both a product of constructing this long-form satire somewhat “on the fly” and an intentionally cultivated aspect of the “I’m only kidding” dodge that allows Colbert and his writers/collaborators (including Stewart, Potter — even Cain?) to continue to get away with this. He can’t come out and say, “I’m asking people to vote for Cain because I’m playing an elaborate practical joke,” or, conversely, “I’m trying to shed light on an important issue.” If he, instead, hints at both possibilities (i.e., it’s just a joke, or it’s a kind of activism), he will be allowed to keep doing such things.

It’s tricky to maintain this kind of thing over the long haul. There’s a great book by Will Kaufman called “The Comedian as Confidence Man,” which examines the careers of American satirists from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce, and finds that nearly all of them eventually succumb to what Kaufman calls “irony fatigue.” This arises, he says, from the frustration that comes from trying to engage in sincere social or political critique while having to maintain that one is “only kidding” in order to continue to be heard. If Colbert suddenly “turned serious” — owned up to having a sincere purpose — he would no longer be granted the kind of indulgence he gets as a comedian. Certainly, those commercials wouldn’t run as “comic relief” on the news channels. “Serious” people like Potter might not feel as safe playing along without the cover of “it’s just a joke.”

But this is where Colbert is in a much better position to really dig deep than any other “political” comedian — even Jon Stewart. Because he’s got this same-named persona, and because his very identity is somewhat ambiguous, he has a great deal of leeway to actually involve himself in the political process, not just stand outside of it and mock it, as Leno, Letterman, Johnny Carson, etc., have traditionally done, and as even Stewart seems somewhat obligated to do, in order to maintain the appearance of being an “impartial referee.” Because Colbert portrays a character that is not exactly “himself,” he is invulnerable to charges that he is just an advocate, or that he is just an entertainer who ought to “shut up and sing,” or that he is being unfair to this candidate or that party. Whatever he’s accused of becomes grist for further satire. If the “real” Colbert is accused of trivializing the process, or smuggling a liberal message, or wasting Congress’ time, or whatever, the “fake” Colbert can respond with mock umbrage, raise the stakes by doing something more transparently outrageous, and make the accusers look like they can’t take a joke in the process.

How have comedians historically performed in public opinion polls? Is it common for them to do well compared to serious political candidates?

The first precedent that comes to mind is, of course, the late Pat Paulsen, who was a “candidate” in six presidential elections, from 1968 until his death in 1997.

Comedians (from joke candidate Paulsen to ex-comedian turned U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.), other entertainers (from Frank Zappa, who flirted with the idea, to Ronald Reagan, who made the transition over many years) have “run for” high office, with varying degrees of seriousness and success.

Colbert can be compared to Paulsen in so far as he is “running” with no hope or expectation of actually gaining office, and with the actual purpose of satirizing aspects of the process. But — not to take anything away from Paulsen, whose 1968 “campaign,” launched on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” actually made CBS extremely nervous — Colbert’s approach is more specific and more politically engaged. Paulsen mainly attacked the venality and hypocrisy of politicians, which — though worthy of mockery — are timeless, nonpartisan and somewhat safe targets. But by actually establishing what is, in a literal sense, a “legitimate” super PAC, trying to “sponsor” the GOP ballot in S.C. (and making the corporate personhood referendum a condition of that offer), Colbert is intervening in actual issues, rather than just making fun of politics or politicians in general.

What do you think will be the Colbert campaign’s real-world impact?

I think it has already increased awareness of the state of campaign finance, and why the present situation, especially the aspects created by Citizens United, is so awful. I wish I could say that I think this heightened awareness will translate into enough public support that efforts to reform this will succeed. Unfortunately, the best possibility for overturning C.U., or delegitimizing the notion of corporate personhood, seems to be a constitutional amendment of the kind U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and a few others have proposed — and that’s a process for which the bar is set pretty high. Even with the attention he is getting now, Colbert’s audience is pretty small, and a constitutional amendment would require a very high level of public awareness and support to succeed, especially given the forces that would be arrayed against it. Any member of Congress who supported such an amendment would risk losing the financial support, and engendering the wrath, of the beneficiaries of the C.U./super-PAC/corporate personhood status quo. It would be political suicide for most of them, and only worth the risk if there was sufficient public awareness and support to overcome those negative consequences. That, unfortunately, is asking a lot from an electorate that are much more inclined to view politics through the Jay Leno, “they’re all crooks, why care?” lens, if they think about politics at all.

That pessimism aside, I’m a big fan of what Colbert is doing, here. I think comedy like this has tremendous potential to educate people about important issues. Not enough people are getting the message to overcome the obstacles that lie in the way of doing something about it, but it’s at least a start. He’s done more to explicate and call attention to these issues with his half-hour show (that’s not even on a full five weekdays) than the 24-hour “news” networks have done, and he’s “front-paged” it in a way even better news organs, with their focus on daily events, can’t or won’t do.

At what point in his political involvement do you think Colbert might cease to be considered simply a “comedian” (or has he crossed that line already)?

He’s crossed the line repeatedly, beginning with his appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner back in 2006, continuing through his 2008 Doritos-sponsored presidential campaign, through his congressional testimony on migrant labor, and on up through the super PAC stuff and the South Carolina primary. And yet, he’s still, indisputably, a comedian. He’s still funny, and never “preachy” — something you couldn’t say about Stewart or Bill Maher, who have had their preachy moments.

The key is the persona: the deniability of responsibility it gives him, and the ambiguity inherent in having an alter ego with the same name, which puts anyone who tries to call him out for overstepping his comedic bounds on shaky ground.

As I said, he’s got to maintain recourse to that “out” that he is only kidding, or he wouldn’t be allowed to keep intervening in things as he is doing.


But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that he is an incredibly talented writer/performer supported by an incredibly smart and funny staff of writers. He couldn’t successfully maintain the blurriness of that line between “I mean it” and “I’m kidding” if he wasn’t consistently funny when stepping from one side of that line to the other.

Emma Mustich is an assistant editor at Salon. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.More Emma Mustich

[source @ Salon.com]
ladypolitik 21st-Jan-2012 02:46 pm (UTC)
Is this a serious question? No one could be bothered to read up on the history and purpose of political satire? Should be fairly obvious, even if there are such potential pitfall as "irony fatigue". We already got a first hand taste of that during the Rally for Sanity (when Stewart suddenly veered from the satire model and shared that he Had A Lot of Feelings™). Still doesn't change the fact that the agenda of satire, even the elaborate stunts, is creating send ups that are meant to make you laugh and think, and not necessarily spark actual political revolutions. They may latently contribute to inspiring revolution, but even then, bigger factors like actual public discontent and corruption usually do the trick.
tell_her_lies 21st-Jan-2012 03:20 pm (UTC)
I was actually watching a few of his shows with my mother and she asked if he was a serious candidate because he has also been given actual news coverage on actual news stations. Granted, she is not the best at understanding lengthy comedy, but after explaining that it was supposed to be satirical/educational and explaining how he was pointing out the implications of Super PACS, she was angry about it. I think that he's doing a really great job of making these issues more understandable.
sophiaserpentia 21st-Jan-2012 08:30 pm (UTC)
I think he's serious at least to the extent that if he actually got a lot of votes, I think he would carry through with the campaign.
muppetfromhell 21st-Jan-2012 03:55 pm (UTC)
dear these people:

If people don't get this without your help, they will not get it with your help.

Also - "If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat." -- Douglas Adams

Edited at 2012-01-21 03:57 pm (UTC)
mswyrr 21st-Jan-2012 07:06 pm (UTC)
Personally, ever since I started fangirling Jonathan Swift's work in political satire, I've been fascinated with taking apart this particular breed of cat. And I think that the work Colbert is doing on Super Pacs is a truly impressive example -- something significant from an historical perspective, even. When historians tell the story of the first decades of the 2000s, this is going to be a huge part of the story. The news media largely failing its job, and bloggers/non-traditional journalists/activists like Colbert doing something amazing in their absence. So I just love this kind of shit. Love it. I could dissect this fucking cat all day. Intellectualizing it and placing it in the context of previous satirical political work doesn't ruin the fun for me; it makes it even more fun.
artfuldodger 21st-Jan-2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
If people call it a joke, then our entire political system is also a joke. Thus, it's brilliant.
layweed 21st-Jan-2012 05:23 pm (UTC)
No joke could be more of a joke than the joke that is our political system. =\
yooperchild 21st-Jan-2012 04:41 pm (UTC)
I mentioned this on my Facebook but I felt like I learned so much from that Super PAC segment the other night
maisontv 21st-Jan-2012 05:33 pm (UTC)
I've learned way more about Super PACs and Citizens United from this entire Colbert Report/Daily Show thing than from the news.
poetic_pixie_13 21st-Jan-2012 05:08 pm (UTC)
Do they... not know how political satire works...?
fenris_lorsrai 21st-Jan-2012 05:08 pm (UTC)
I am sincerely hoping that Colbert/Cain can get enough votes to get A delegate for the Republican convention. That will be GOLD.

especially if they continue devouring each other so no candidate comes into the convention with the ability to win the first ballot. Going to second ballot + Colbert/Cain delegates being courted to jump ship= ONTD
one_hoopy_frood 21st-Jan-2012 05:30 pm (UTC)
I want to see Colbert push this to the absolute extent that he can. It's almost better that he isn't on the ballot himself, because I am not even sure if Herman Cain fully understands that being in on the joke doesn't mean he won't be the butt of it.
playthefool 21st-Jan-2012 06:02 pm (UTC)
I am not even sure if Herman Cain fully understands that being in on the joke doesn't mean he won't be the butt of it

lmao this is exactly what I think
draperyfalls 21st-Jan-2012 06:18 pm (UTC)
It's been fun to watch this progress, but I was watching Colbert on TDS last week and Jon was talking about all the thousands of dollars they spent on ads (I think one of them cost $15,000). And hmm. I know both of them do a ton for charity already, but I'm just wondering if making a satirical point about the machinery of the election process is worth spending so much money when it could be put to better use.
tigerdreams 21st-Jan-2012 06:33 pm (UTC)
You don't think that educating people about the dysfunction of our political system in a fun and accessible way is a good use for the money?
kishmet 21st-Jan-2012 07:03 pm (UTC)
I wondered the same at the time, but then it occurred to me that the presidential candidates and their PACs spend WAY more on their campaigns, and they're striving to obfuscate rather than educate. I'd count that a waste of money, whereas education/information on the political process is something we are genuinely in dire need of in this country.
romp 21st-Jan-2012 06:43 pm (UTC)
there will always be people puzzled about whether or not Colbert is serious
evilgmbethy 21st-Jan-2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
lol Chuck Todd was all kinds of butthurt at Colbert. so funny.
baked_goldfish 21st-Jan-2012 09:52 pm (UTC)
Chuck Todd is inherently hilarious. I can't take him seriously.
baked_goldfish 21st-Jan-2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
The weirdest part of this whole deal has been watching the press try to cover it. They keep calling it a "joke campaign" without realizing that the press itself is half the joke.
peacetrains 21st-Jan-2012 09:58 pm (UTC)
But by actually establishing what is, in a literal sense, a “legitimate” super PAC, trying to “sponsor” the GOP ballot in S.C. (and making the corporate personhood referendum a condition of that offer), Colbert is intervening in actual issues, rather than just making fun of politics or politicians in general.

Thus, the mark of well done political satire.

And his Super PAC is 100% legitimate, so I don't see why it needs to be in quotations.
mswyrr 21st-Jan-2012 10:35 pm (UTC)
It amuses me that Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow is, in a sense, the only legitimate Super PAC (inasmuch as it's using the Super PAC system created by Citizens United for an ethical, pro-democratic end rather than an unethical, anti-democratic one) and yet it is also the only one where words like "legitimate" get put in scare quotes.

I think all the other PACs should be scare quoted instead. But especially Newt's and Mitt's.
monica1979 21st-Jan-2012 11:58 pm (UTC)
They just don't get it, do they?
Is it really that shocking that political satire can actually educate people as opposed to simply amusing them?
lonefire08 Colbert in the Primary22nd-Jan-2012 12:41 am (UTC)
Speaking of Colbert, the nyt is the only one so far I've been able to find that breaks up the "other" vote.

http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/primaries/states/south-carolina

Cain's got 51 votes, but most of the college towns (Charleston, Columbia, Clemson) are still less than 1% in.

Also, are we having a livepost for the SC Primary?
vanillakokakola 22nd-Jan-2012 12:49 am (UTC)
that's what i was wondering. i was really hoping for a post.
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