Stephen Colbert is running at full stride. As he enters the studio, the audience is already cheering. He is dressed, as he seems always to be dressed, in a sharp suit and conservative tie, with rectangular rimless glasses and perfectly parted hair, so that when he does his short victory lap on the floor of the studio, he looks like a gleeful bank manager who’s just won the lottery or possibly lost his mind.
He thrusts his arms out in mock triumph. The audience roars. He offers a couple of V-for-victory gestures that are part Richard Nixon and part chest-thumping, peace-out-homey sign. Then he motions for everyone to quiet down and asks, “Do you have any questions? Anything you want to know about me before I go into character and start saying these terrible things?”
A hand in the front row shoots up before he finishes. The woman looks so excited to be here that you suspect she’s wearing homemade Colbert pajamas under her clothes. She stands and addresses Colbert. “So how did it feel to give the president the verbal finger at the White House press-corps dinner?”
The audience roars again.
“Ah, yes,” says Colbert, of the night that vaulted him from a cult-TV comedian to a lantern-wielding folk hero in the dark. “The press-corps dinner.” He smiles a slightly wary, slightly weary smile.
The audience roars again.
This has been a very good year for Stephen Colbert, both the 42-year-old, God-fearing, Catholic Church–attending comedian and his even-more-God-fearing, lefty-baiting, fact-averse TV alter ego. He’s about to celebrate the first anniversary of his show, The Colbert Report, on the very first episode of which he coined truthiness, a term that’s been embraced as the summarizing concept of our age. He was invited to give the keynote speech at a dinner for the president and wound up delivering a controversial, possibly very funny, possibly horribly unfunny, possibly bravely patriotic, and possibly near-seditious monologue that earned him a crazed mob of lunatic followers who await his every command. (Which is ironic, not least to Colbert, since his show is essentially a satire of the kinds of people who have crazed mobs of lunatic followers who await their every command.) And he finds himself smack-dab in the middle of an election season in which farce—a language that, right now, no one is speaking more fluently than Colbert—is barely outpacing the front page. On a recent Monday morning, he scanned a preliminary script for that evening’s show, on which topic one was Republican Mark Foley and his lewd messages to teenage congressional pages. Colbert was practically giggling. “This is my favorite part,” he said, then slipped into his character’s voice. “People, you don’t understand: He was the co-chairman of the Caucus for Missing and Exploited Children!” He cracks up, partly at the delectable irony and partly at the word caucus. The underlying message in his grin, though, is clear: Seriously—you can’t make this shit up.
But the real reason he’s having a very good year is that we’re about to head to the polls in what the Times has characterized as “the most toxic midterm campaign environment in memory,” amid a barrage of attack ads that play out like Colbert-penned parodies. One Republican spot criticizes a Wisconsin Democrat and doctor for suing patients who hadn’t paid their medical bills and includes the line “Why don’t you just tell the truth, Dr. Millionaire?,” which is impossible to hear without imagining it in Colbert’s scolding, mock-stentorian voice. The president recently reached a compromise on torture legislation by redefining the meaning of torture. When a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the war in Iraq had increased the terrorist threat to America, the White House’s official response was that the war in Iraq had not, in fact, increased the terrorist threat to America. Colbert’s cleverly worded political doublespeak—like the press-corps-dinner joke “Don’t pay attention to the approval ratings that say 68 percent of Americans disapprove of the job [Bush] is doing. I ask you this: Does that not also logically mean that 68 percent of Americans approve of the job he’s not doing?”—could plausibly have come from the mouth of Tony Snow. Or Donald Rumsfeld. Or Karl Rove.
“Language has always been important in politics, but language is incredibly important to the present political struggle,” Colbert says. “Because if you can establish an atmosphere in which information doesn’t mean anything, then there is no objective reality. The first show we did, a year ago, was our thesis statement: What you wish to be true is all that matters, regardless of the facts. Of course, at the time, we thought we were being farcical.”