Stephen Colbert is not what he seems.
Sure, he plays the part of an over-the-top conservative pundit, but his deception goes well beyond that. While he cracks crude jokes and stages silly stunts, he is simultaneously duping his viewers. You see, we are all unsuspecting rubes in his master plan to educate and enlighten us about our own political system. Night after night, he dissects complex issues while parodying the absurdities of our times. And in the process, Stephen Colbert has become this country’s greatest political satirist.
To be fair, I can’t fully appreciate what Lenny Bruce and George Carlton did in their day; much less gauge the importance of Will Rogers or Mark Twain. That being said, I don’t know of another comedian who has so completely embraced a single character, or so thoroughly mastered the art of sarcasm. It’s almost hard to imagine Stephen Colbert not being the megalomaniac who feeds on applause, trust his guts over his brains, and never backs away from a challenge. That willingness to push the boundaries of his one man show has won him legions of loyal fans, otherwise known as Colbert Nation.
In 2006, Colbert spoke for millions of Americans at the now infamous White House Correspondence Dinner. With George W. Bush only a few feet away, he delivered a blistering attack on the intractability of our commander-and-chief, as well his administration’s blatant attempts at media manipulation. Then he turned his sights on the media, mocking them for failing to do their jobs in the run-up to the war. While Colbert received a chilly reception from the attendees, the speech became an internet sensation and his cult following grew.
Night after night, he shines a bright spotlight on the hypocrisy in our political system and in the media. Sometimes, his self-aggrandizing character attempts fairly pointless pranks, such as trying to get a Hungarian bridge or a treadmill aboard the International Space Station named after him. However, Colbert is truly at his best when he attaches his star power to a real cause that needs attention, whether it’s going to Iraq to put on a show for the troops or appearing before a Congressional committee in support of the migrant farm worker.
When Glen Beck hosted his Tea Party rally in DC, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart pushed back with their own Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, drawing well over double Beck’s numbers. In response to the rise of Super-PACs, Colbert took his viewers through the process of creating his own Super-PAC. As we were laughing at “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow (ABTT),” we were actually learning how a complicated legal entity works, as well as the inherent dangers in allowing anonymous donors to funnel unlimited amounts of money into campaigns.
The ABTT has raised just over a million dollars or, as he said in his letter to the commission, “Yeah! How do you like me now, F.E.C? I’m rolling seven digits deep!” The money will be spent to produce mock ads, such as the ones he already produced on “Mitt the Ripper,” spoofing his time as a corporate raider at Bain Capital. Colbert went on to defend his Super PAC by saying, “We raised it on my show and used it to materially influence the elections – in full accordance with the law. It’s the way our founding fathers would have wanted it, if they had founded corporations instead of just a country.”
The natural extension of a pundit who portends to have all the answers is to run for the highest office in the land. While he couldn’t get his name on the Republican ballot in his home state of South Carolina, he urged his followers to vote for his surrogate, Herman Cain, who had earlier dropped out of the race. After a surreal Rock-Me-Like-Herman-Cain rally, Cain garnered only 1%, causing Colbert to suspend his fake campaign. It was somewhat disappointing, until you realize he got six thousand people to cast a merely symbolic vote.
Colbert is not the first comedian to run for high office. Will Rogers ran a mock campaign for President in 1928. Pat Paulson, a comedian on the Smother Brothers show, never seemed to stop running for President (1968, 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996). Of course, Al Franken ran and actually won the Minnesota Senate seat in the 2008 elections. Another comedian, Kinky Friedman, ran for the governor of Texas in 2006, losing to Rick Perry. Apparently Kinky endorses what Colbert is doing. “That’s why we need Stephen Colbert in there — to stir things up, to be a troublemaker. I very much approve of that. That’s what Jesus was.”
In real life, Colbert is a devout Catholic who teaches Sunday school. He is quoted as saying, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” Those are powerful words for a talk show host on Comedy Central. But Stephen Colbert has always been much more than that.
Anyone who underestimates Colbert doesn’t understand him or his comedy. Not only is he a razor sharp political satirist and a great entertainer, he is willing to go further than most comedians, actually bumping up against the powers that be. That can be a dangerous business and, so far, Stephen Colbert has risen to the task. I look forward to watching where the man and the show go from here. If History is any indication, it will be edgy, hilarious, and filled with truthiness.
edited by Greg Eckard
Jeff Fulmer lives in Nashville Tennessee and is the author of the book Hometown Prophet. If God spoke through a prophet today, would we really want to hear what he has to say? For more information, feel free to visit the Hometown Prophet website. Follow on Twitter or like on Facebook.