Stephen Colbert Has America by the Ballots

Photo: Andrew Eccles

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.”

Colbert on the job, in front of a live audience, removing his TV face at the end of taping.Photo: Naomi Harris

It’s been a very good year for Stephen Colbert because it’s witnessed the birth of the Colbertocracy. We’re just voting in it.

For six seasons, Colbert co-starred as one of several sidekicks to Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. He’d actually started on the show in 1997, two years before Stewart arrived, back when it was hosted by Craig Kilborn and was less a pointed political satire than a pell-mell send-up of corny local-news affiliates. Under Stewart, though, Colbert developed his trademark persona. With his cocked eyebrow and deadpan glare, he played the self-serious, implacable right-wing counterpoint to Stewart’s skeptical anchor. On the night in 2000 that Al Gore finally conceded the presidency, Colbert turned to Stewart after they’d finished taping and said, “This is the best job in television.”

In those years, though, The Daily Show was, by design, organized as Jon Stewart and the Stewartettes. Colbert was one of two emerging stars: The other was Steve Carell, he of the dusty brown hair and goofy grin. After Carell left in 2004 to star in NBC’s sitcom The Office (and The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Colbert became Stewart’s de facto second-in-command, subbing as the anchor when Stewart was on vacation. But it was clear that Colbert was outgrowing his role.

“If your name’s not Jon Stewart, there’s only so many places you can go on The Daily Show,” says Ben Karlin, the 35-year-old executive producer of both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. “Steve Carell and Steve Colbert were the first two we identified as giant talents with breakout potential. But we didn’t have the mechanism in place when Steve Carell started getting offers, so he left. With Stephen, we said, ‘Let’s not just let him go off and become a huge star and not be working with the guy.’ ”

Looking back now on The Daily Show, Colbert says, “I couldn’t imagine how much longer I could do it. I still liked it, and I didn’t want to not like it.” So on the day after the 2004 Emmys in L.A., at which The Daily Show won the Best Writing and Best Variety Series awards, Colbert met with Doug Herzog, the head of Comedy Central. Herzog wanted to expand the Daily Show franchise, and Stewart and Karlin were looking for a TV show for their production company, Busboy. So they decided to do their first project with Colbert. The Colbert Report premiered on October 17, 2005, and it was well received, though there were a few grumpy dissenters among the critics, including me. (I even went so far as to compare it unfavorably in print with David Spade’s show on Comedy Central, something about which I will be continually reminded while seated in the waiting room of hell.) Sure, it was funny, but here was the dilemma: An entire program built around a caustic right-wing bully—with no impish Jon Stewart to leaven the irony—struck some (well, me) as a joke with a built-in stale date.

Still, the debut episode had its moments, such as the introduction of a segment titled “The Word,” which facilitates an opening rant by Colbert. On the first show, the word was supposed to be truth, because a central element of Colbert’s character is his distinction between “truth” and “facts.” “I’m not a fan of facts,” he declared on-air, by way of a manifesto. “You see, the facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are.”

At about 3:30 on the day of the first taping, during a rehearsal, Colbert stopped and beckoned to his writers. He’d decided they needed a better word. “It’s not stupid enough,” he said. “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth—the truth we want to exist.” Then he had an idea: “Truthiness.” He now displays, on a bookshelf in his office, a sampler embroidered with TRUTHINESS inside a gold frame.

Colbert usually arrives for work about ten, having been driven the 45 minutes from his home in Montclair, New Jersey. On this morning, though, Colbert has arrived at his studio at 54th and Tenth at 8:30 a.m., so we’ll have time to talk.

Now, I don’t really expect Colbert to be wearing a suit at 8:30 in the morning, but I’m slightly surprised and disappointed that he’s not. I have to admit I pictured him sleeping in the suit, then waking in the suit, and then barking orders at his minions throughout the day in the suit, while standing still and thrusting his arms out straight so his robot manservants can steam the suit clean. But then, like a lot of people, I am prone to confuse Stephen Colbert with “Stephen Colbert.” He is fond of joking that he might start calling himself Stephen Col-Bert, with a hard T, rather than Col-Bear, just to accentuate the distinction.

So Stephen Col-Bert shows up at 8:30 in a charcoal polo shirt with the collar half-turned up, and ruffled hair, and those rimless rectangular glasses, and black rugby pants, and brown Merrell slipper-sneakers. We sit down in his office, which is big, and has brick walls, and features a few distinctive decorative touches, such as a Lord of the Rings pinball game, and an elliptical machine with an American flag folded on the console, and a bobblehead doll from that strange, not-that-long-ago-but-seems-like-forever-ago period when Colbert served as GM’s national “Mr. Goodwrench” spokesperson. One difficulty in writing about Colbert is that when you point out things like the fact that he’s a huge Lord of the Rings nerd and has, on his desk, a heavy picture book titled A Tolkien Bestiary, roughly half the readers will think, Hmmm, interesting, while the other half will think, Yes! Yes! Of course! Colbert’s a Tolkien nut! because they worship Stephen Tyrone Colbert and know everything about him.

Here’s a few more things they know: He’s the eleventh of eleven children, born into a Catholic family in Charleston, South Carolina. He’s deaf in his right ear. His father was a doctor, and his mother stayed at home. When he was 10, his father and two of his older brothers were killed in a plane crash. Every night, he would listen to “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” before going to bed and it would make him cry. As a kid, he was fascinated by the geographically indistinct accents of TV news anchors, and he purposefully dropped his southern twang, because he sensed that Southerners got stereotyped as being dumb. He studied philosophy in college. His favorite comic was Bill Cosby. He was also influenced by the comedian Don Novello, best known as Father Guido Sarducci—but what Colbert loved best was the ultrapatriotic correspondence Novello wrote to various corporations under the pseudonym Lazlo Toth, published as The Lazlo Letters, each one concluding with the sign-off “Stand by our President.” He studied comedy at Second City in Chicago and got his start in news by doing a wacky segment on Good Morning America. He’s married to a woman from his hometown, and they have three kids, the oldest of whom is 11. He still teaches Sunday school.

Here’s something Colbertophiles might not know or might not want to know: He loves Richard Nixon. He has a 1972 Nixon campaign poster on the wall of his office. He points at it and says, “He was so liberal! Look at what he was running on. He started the EPA. He opened China. He gave 18-year-olds the vote. His issues were education, drugs, women, minorities, youth involvement, ending the draft, and improving the environment. John Kerry couldn’t have run on this! What would I give for a Nixon?”

Colbert in person is one of those rare comedians who like to dissect comedy, especially his own comedy, and especially what makes his own comedy funny. This is owed in part to the nature of his show—he plays an abrasive character who is, on the surface, designed to be repellent but is actually meant to entertain—which means he’s spent a lot of time thinking about how exactly to pull off this trick. When he was developing the idea with Karlin and Stewart, he said to them, “I can’t be an asshole.” And Stewart said, “You’re not an asshole. You’re an idiot. There’s a difference.” For starters, being an idiot gives him a certain license. “The audience wouldn’t forgive Jon for saying things most comedians would want to say. But we can say almost anything, because it’s coming out of the mouth of this character.”

Still, there’s obvious room for overlap and conflict between the two shows; for example, a “War on Valentine’s Day” story that Colbert’s writers had prepared a long segment about, only to learn The Daily Show had already done a field piece on the topic. Both shows maintain independent writing staffs, so Ben Karlin zips back and forth between the studios, overseeing the tapings and making the final call if there’s a tug-of-war. “The game they’re playing is a slightly different one from us,” says Stewart, “so we don’t trip on each other that much. And let’s put it this way: This ain’t the Serengeti. There’s plenty of food to go around.” If a story’s big enough, like the Mark Foley sex scandal, both shows will take a bite—Stewart with his What is this world coming to? lament and Colbert with his contrarian-at-all-costs irony. “It’s the Jewish Day of Atonement,” said Stewart on-air, about Foley. “I don’t know how many days of fasting can get you out of trying to bang 16-year-olds. My guess is at least three days. Even after that, probably a month of salads.” On his show, Colbert defended Foley as misunderstood, claiming “stud” is a text-message acronym for “Strong Teenager Using Democracy,” and “horny” stands for “Happy On Reaching New Year’s.” “Every January 1,” announced Colbert in that unwavering pundit’s tone, “that is the message I send to my buddies at Stephen Colbert’s Youth Camp for Young Studs: ‘I am incredibly horny.’ ”

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.

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.”

So to anyone who worried that Colbert would wither as a one-note parody, stunted by The Daily Show’s shadow, take heed: He now stands astride the political landscape, his mob of followers at the ready. Colbertisms ring throughout the land—and not just from the mouth of Colbert. The best testament to the triumph of the Colbertocracy is that you can now hear a Colbert line like “I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least, and by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq” and, devoid of context, you might genuinely wonder if it came from a parodist, a pundit, or from the president himself.

Answers: Coulter 1, 4, 6 Colbert 2, 3, 5, 7

How to Win by Stephen Colbert
A lot of people have accused me of being a partisan Republican hack. Not true—I’m an Independent hack. I speak my mind and don’t play favorites. To prove it, I’ve put together sage advice for both Democrats and Republicans on how to rally voters for this November’s midterm elections.



ADVICE TO REPUBLICANS The next House Leader will be… (Whisper) … nancy pelosi … Cleared of all charges. The Economy Ask, “Are you better off now than you were six years ago? Ask, “Are you more blown up by a terrorist now than you were six years ago?” The Plan for Iraq Not “cut-and-run” … “sever-and-stroll.” “What’s Iraq?” The Budget Say you won’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Say you’ll sell advertising on the backs of the poor. Illegal Immigration “¡Hola! Voto para nosotros.” “Do not wash the ‘rojo’ sock with the ‘blanco’ shirt.” Global Warming Appeal to coastal voters in states like Florida. Appeal to future coastal voters in states like Ohio. Health Care Tell story of poor, uninsured mother of three to support your push for Universal Coverage. Tell story of Tiny Tim to support your push for Christmas Miracles. NSA Surveillance Call anyone wearing a tie “a fascist.” Call anyone wearing a wire “a patriot.” Alternative Energy The Limitless Power of Hemp! Gitmo detainees on treadmill-generators! Jobs Support honest crusaders for workers’ rights, like the Teamsters. “I hear the Army’s hiring …” Prayer in School There is no place in public school for God, no matter how you choose to define Him … or not define Him … or Her … or It … or Them … or … We? The public schools need our prayers, because they’re sure not getting our money. Smearing Your Opponents Take the high road. It’s much easier to sling mud downhill. Reveal new tests that prove McCain’s illegitimate black child actually fathered by (Democratic opponent’s name here). Firing Up the Base Get Clintons on TV as much as possible. Get Clintons on TV as much as possible.

Stephen Colbert Has America by the Ballots