Stephen Colbert, in full faux conservative character, mocked Donald Trump's flirtation with the White House late last month, quipping that we may be soon calling The Donald "President-Just-a-Publicity-Stunt.”
Trump's presidential tease may be over, but now the comic is in the middle of his own collision of news, entertainment and politics.
The two very different kinds of TV stars, in recent days, have shown they have more in common than their audiences – or even they – might think.
Both have used their television platforms to promote political efforts, likely making life somewhat uncomfortable for their respective network bosses. Both became players of sorts in the finance campaign debate – Trump hinted he’d foot his own bill for a presidential run, while Colbert is trying to close a loophole that essentially allows unlimited corporate contributions to candidates via so-called Super PACs. Both raised questions about the role of TV personalities in an era where Sarah Palin turned a reality show into a virtual campaign infomerical.
The blurring of lines has made for some fascinating viewing – even if it's left many of us rubbing our eyes.
Trump had been set to announce on Sunday's season finale of "Celebrity Apprentice" whether he'd make an announcement on whether he'd run for president. Now, we’ll just have to be satisfied with the showdown between John Rich and Marlee Matlin, and the news that “Celebrity Apprentice” will return for another season.
While Colbert's not running for president this time around (he tried, unsuccessfully, to get on the primary ballot in his home state of South Carolina in 2007), he’s once again floating in the limbo between satire and activism.
He went to Washington Friday to petition the Federal Election Commission to give him an exemption that would allow him to form and promote his "Super PAC" without getting Comedy Central owners Viacom in legal trouble.
In short, Colbert is using humor – and action – to attack the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows unlimited corporate contributions to Super PACS. He's also targeting Fox News, whose politically aligned paid analysts can essentially tout their favored Super PACs on the air because the mentions come in the context of a news show. Colbert is arguing that "The Colbert Report" is a news show for the purposes of PAC talk.
"There should be unlimited campaign money," Colbert, employing his right-wing talk show host persona, told reporters Friday. "And I want some of it."
Both Colbert and Trump play characters on TV, even if we might be forgiven for having difficulty distinguishing between the egotistical, publicity-loving competition show judge who fired Meat Loaf from the real-life egotistical, publicity-loving builder.
While exploring a presidential run is no small matter, the stakes have always been higher for Colbert. He previously teetered in the balancing act between comedy and activism when he testified last September – in character – at a congressional hearing on migrant workers, and co-hosted the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” with Jon Stewart in Washington a month later. Viacom executives certainly can’t be happy about Colbert calling them “idiots” on his show last week and ridiculing a letter from the company’s lawyers presumably telling him to stop talking about his PAC on the show.
Playing PAC-man might be Colbert’s most dangerous game yet, as he risks his credibility as a satirist among comedy purists by taking political action to expose the absurdity of an electoral system that gives the rich undue influence.
Trump, a rich guy himself, may have won a no-lose publicity battle, even if his game of presidential chicken ended at least a few days earlier than expected. But for sheer boldness, Colbert trumps The Donald.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.