Colbert’s on-air personality, so distinct from Stewart’s, leads to a peculiar comedic alchemy on the show. During one taping I attended, Colbert did a bit about eating disorders that ended with his addressing the camera and saying flatly, “Girls, if we can’t see your ribs, you’re ugly.” The audience laughed. I laughed. The line was obviously, purposefully outrageous. But it was weird to think that this no-doubt self-identified progressive-liberal crowd was howling at a line that, if it had been delivered verbatim by Ann Coulter on Today, would have them sputtering with rage.
In fact, here’s a list of statements by either Stephen Colbert or Ann Coulter. See if you can tell who said what (answers are at the end of the story):
1. “Even Islamic terrorists don’t hate America like liberals do. They don’t have the energy. If they had that much energy, they’d have indoor plumbing by now.”
2. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay. I have plenty of friends who are going to hell.”
3. “I just think Rosa Parks was overrated. Last time I checked, she got famous for breaking the law.”
4. “Being nice to people is, in fact, one of the incidental tenets of Christianity, as opposed to other religions whose tenets are more along the lines of ‘Kill everyone who doesn’t smell bad and answer to the name Muhammad.’ ”
5. “I believe that everyone has the right to their own religion, be you Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish. I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”
6. “[North Korea] is a major threat. I just think it would be fun to nuke them and have it be a warning to the rest of the world.”
7. “Isn’t an agnostic just an atheist without balls?”
Of course, I’m not trying to equate Coulter with Colbert. For starters, Coulter is a shrill, abusive demagogue and Colbert just plays one on TV. But with Coulter, there’s always been a sturdy suspicion that she is playing a character (like Colbert) and amping up the obnoxious rhetoric for maximum effect (like Colbert). When I mention the comparison to Colbert, though, he seems surprised, even unnerved. “I don’t really think about her much,” he says. “She’s a self-generating bogeyman. She’s like someone who wants attention for having been bad.” Given that he’s hosted right-wing true believers like Joe Scarborough before, and has often said he’d love to have Bill O’Reilly on the show, would he ever invite Coulter as a guest? “My sense is that she’s playing a character,” he says. “I don’t need another character. There’s one character on my show, and that’s me.”
The thesis of the ﬁrst show, a year ago, was, “What you wish to be true is all that matters, regardless of the facts,” says Colbert. “At the time, we thought we were being farcical.”
Colbert’s character is a comedic high-wire act, and as the crowd beneath him gets larger, and louder, and more distracting, the act gets trickier still. “We share the same name. But he says things I don’t mean with a straight face. On the street, I think people know the difference. But I’m not sure, when people ask me to go someplace, which one they’ve asked.”
He ran into this problem earlier this year, when Knox College in Illinois invited him to deliver a commencement speech. Genuinely unsure of who the school was expecting, he delivered half the speech as himself and half as Col-Bear. The most notorious example, however, of this invite-Jekyll-and-get-Hyde conundrum was the press-corps dinner, at which a prominent comedian traditionally performs a light roast of the president. This year, Mark Smith, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, invited Colbert to give the main toast. Smith later told the Times he hadn’t seen much of Colbert’s work. Colbert accepted the invitation, grabbed his tux, and shuttled down to D.C., prepared to deliver twenty minutes’ worth of vintage Colbert jokes, some new and some drawn from the show. The night kicked off with opening remarks, then an act in which President Bush appeared alongside a President Bush impersonator, which went over very well.
Then Colbert stepped to the podium.
He opened with an obligatory Cheney’s-going-to-shoot-me-in-the-face joke, then said, “Madame First Lady, Mr. President, my name is Stephen Colbert, and tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate the president … I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a powerful message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world … He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will … ” Then, addressing the press, Colbert said, “Over the last five years, you people were so good. Over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming: We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try and find out.” And so on.