Stephen Colbert returns to "The Colbert Report" Monday night straight from the newest ring in a traveling circus of his own making. While it's not the Greatest Show on Earth, Colbert's act may very well be the most death- (or depth-) defying spectacle in TV comedy.
Colbert – or rather his Super PAC – even invoked images from the big top in his latest mock campaign commercial, another serio-comic collision between pop culture and politics. “America is in crisis and Stephen Colbert is turning our election into a circus,” declares Samuel L. Jackson, narrator of the spot, done in the style of an attack ad targeting Colbert himself.
The spot offers a rare instance of truth – and truthiness – in advertising. After campaigning in South Carolina for former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, who notched one percent of Saturday’s primary vote, Colbert resumes his show's “Indecision 2012” shtick having added to the confusion. The only thing clear is that “The Colbert Show” host has forever blurred the lines between TV satire and activism.
Colbert is playing a dangerous – yet fascinating and at times hilarious – game of PAC Man. He’s employing his faux conservative commentator character to use the Super PAC system to both protest and lampoon it. We’re at the strange point where public donations are subsidizing a comedy movement – one that might have directly influenced some voters Saturday.
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The Colbert effort perhaps reflects a changing, often vexing, meta media age in which information and entertainment fly at us faster than ever – and in forms that are sometimes indistinguishable. Some of the Republican presidential hopefuls have shown up on the late-night TV comedy circuit, and their debates have been likened to a reality show. Colbert’s response represents a kind of “surreality” show that borders on performance art.
His Comedy Central colleague, Jon Stewart, is in on the very serious joke, signing on as the head of the Super PAC, first called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, now also known as The Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC. The new name is both a knock at the supposed distance candidates are supposed to keep from their Super PACs, and a nod to Stewart’s legal obligation to avoid communicating directly with his buddy on campaign spending matters. (Stewart noted on “The Daily Show” last week that a violation could land him in prison – he and Colbert turned the discussion into an effective bit.)
Colbert, unlike Stewart, funnels his humor through a character – one that he used in September 2010 to testify before Congress about the plight of migrant farm workers. A month later, he and Stewart drew an estimated 215,000 to the Washington Mall for their “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” – reportedly more than twice the number that attended the event it lampooned, Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally.
Colbert attracted a far more modest crowd in his home state during Friday’s rally with Cain, who was on the ballot – unlike the comedian, who was too late to get in the game, even if he professes he really only wants to be "President of the United States of South Carolina." The “Rock You Like a Herman Cain” event, complete with Colbert singing “This Little Light of Mine,” proved a performance worthy of Groucho Marx and Paddy Chayefsky whose “mad-as-hell” Howard Beale newsman character in the classic film “Network” presaged the likes of Beck.
Colbert, who plays a conservative blowhard on TV, didn’t sound mad-as-hell when he addressed whether his campaign is a joke, even if his point was dead serious.
"If they are calling being allowed to form a Super PAC, and collecting unlimited and untraceable amounts of money from individuals, unions, and corporations and spend that money on political ads and for personal enrichment, and then surrender that Super PAC to one of my closest friends while I explore a run for office, if that is a joke, then they are saying that our entire campaign finance system is a joke,” he said. “And I don't know about you, but I have been paid to be offended by that.”
Colbert is at once the clown, ringmaster and tightrope walker of his “circus.” He hasn’t fallen yet, but it’s a long, perilous trip to Election Day. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Colbert’s American’s for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow movement is that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring from the boundary-pushing comedian’s high-wire act. In the meantime, check out Colbert's attack ad on himself and decide for yourself whether the truthiness lies:
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.