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Stephen Colbert Has America by the Ballots

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In the audience, Colbert’s co-head writers, Allison Silverman and Rich Dahm, sat at a table with Colbert’s agent and his wife. Henry Kissinger was nearby, as was Karl Rove, as were Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame. Silverman remembers thinking, Oh, my God, he’s really going for it. When I asked her later about that night, she laughed and said, “I was afraid for my life.”

After the speech, Colbert was introduced to the First Couple. “The president was very nice,” he recalls. “The First Lady said, ‘Well done.’ ” But later, at a party, somebody came up to him and asked, “So, what would you take back if you could?”

To which Colbert replied, “Nothing. I had a really good time.” Then he asked, “Is there something I should know?”

The speech, which was broadcast on C-span, was all over YouTube within an hour, and the clips were viewed 2.7 million times over the next two days. Peter Daou on Salon called it “a biting rebuke of George W. Bush and the lily-livered press corps.” Richard Cohen, in the Washington Post, called Colbert “not just a failure as a comedian but rude.” Chris Lehmann in the Observer wrote, “[T]he act was the opposite of ballsy confrontation … the material came off as shrill and airless.” A commenter on the blog Daily Kos wrote, “He was stunning and they were stunned.”

The strangest responses, though, were the ones that defended Colbert by claiming he wasn’t trying to be funny—that his real goal, having infiltrated the inner sanctum of Washington under cover of tuxedo, was to enact some kind of kamikaze Soy Bomb attack on President Bush. A commenter on the New Republic’s Website wrote, “Given an opportunity to inflict personal, withering criticism on perhaps the most insulated President in the history of our nation, what would you rather be: scathing or funny?” Another suggested to the Times’  “Letters” page, “Although I am a fan of Mr. Colbert, I rarely laughed. If his performance wasn’t funny, perhaps it’s because he wasn’t joking.”

Colbert has become something very close to what he’s parodying, a kind of Bill O’Reilly for the angry left.

In the immediate aftermath of the press-corps appearance, Colbert seemed genuinely unsettled by all the attention, refusing to speak on it publicly. At the taping I attended with the crazy-enthusiastic girl who asked about giving the president the finger, he demurred uncomfortably, saying, “For the record, I was there to do jokes.” He then said of the president, “He’s a charming fellow … ” before trailing off and taking the next question. Later, to me, he repeats what’s now become his standard line: “I was there to do some jokes. I was there to do what I do. I expected maybe a whiff of brimstone. A soupçon of scandal. Did I expect this to be a line in the sand for people? No, absolutely not.” As for the Internet-fueled hysteria, he claims not to know much about it. “I’ve kept myself willfully ignorant of people’s reactions. I did not read the blogs. People would send me links, and I’d say, ‘Please don’t send me links.’ I asked my wife just to collect everything, put it in a book, and tell me about it later.”

He has yet to open that scrapbook, though he adds later about the furor, “It depresses me that there isn’t a politician who can address that frustration that was clearly evident in the reaction to what I did. Where’s the politician who can take advantage of that anger and that passion?” When I point out his current folk-hero status and suggest that, you know, maybe he’s that guy, he deflects the question. “I’m Paul Bunyan, is that what you’re saying? We should open a gift shop and museum here.”

Colbert’s not oblivious, of course, to the anger, or the passion, or his following. It’s evident in his show. Even before the press-corps-dinner speech, Colbert’s character was evolving—and the show getting funnier—but since then, he’s been unleashed. His success now highlights an ironic problem for his progenitor, The Daily Show, which, as it’s grown in stature, has struggled to keep its most talented correspondents. Ed Helms, Colbert’s ostensible replacement, left to join The Office; Rob Corddry is developing his own show with Busboy; his younger brother, Nate, bolted for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Stewart has resorted to re-airing Colbert’s appearances on the show in a segment called “Klassic Kolbert.” “We’ve always been made up of moving parts,” Stewart says. “But it’s a lot easier to lose a pinkie toe than a leg.”

During his own media moment, which peaked around the 2004 election, Stewart reliably sidestepped the question of his influence, and he’s always remained studiously nonpartisan, even though his personal politics aren’t hard to discern. The politics of Colbert, the person, are more difficult to unravel—“I’m not a political person, and I certainly don’t have the answers,” is his refrain—but Colbert, the character, now commands the power of his growing “Colbert Nation” in a manner The Daily Show has never attempted with its fans. In recent months, Colbert has dispatched his followers on a rampage of merry mischief: bombing the Website of a junior-league hockey team holding a name-our-mascot campaign (the team’s mascot is now Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle); hijacking an online poll posted by Hungary’s Economic Ministry to name a new bridge over the Danube the Stephen Colbert Bridge (he topped the poll, but Hungary disqualified him because he’s not dead); sabotaging Wikipedia, the collectively edited online encyclopedia, after Colbert coined “Wikiality,” a reality that exists simply because enough people agree on it. These are all pranks, of course, but they would have fallen flat if there wasn’t a real Colbert Nation waiting to be mobilized. Ironically—and not really in the Col-Bear ironic way—he’s become something very close to what he’s parodying, a kind of Bill O’Reilly for the angry left. “The funny thing is, I knew when we were developing this show, we were doing a show that parodies the cult of personality,” he says. “And yet, if the show was successful, it would generate a cult of personality. It had to. That means it’s working.”


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