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South Carolina: The State Of Irony

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Four years ago comedian Stephen Colbert announced he was running for president but only in his home state of South Carolina. He said he was running both as a Republican and a Democrat -- or a Republicrat.

The state's Democratic Party said it would not permit Colbert's name to be put on the ballot for the presidential primary because it said that by doing so it would make a mockery of politics in South Carolina. If anyone was going to make a mockery of the political process in the state, Democratic Party leaders said they were perfectly capable of doing so themselves and didn't need any help from outsiders.

In South Carolina, as the Colbert story demonstrates, comedy and politics are practically interchangeable. It's often impossible to tell when the comedians are being politicians and the politicians are being comedians.

Two years ago, Jon Stewart, whose program The Daily Show precedes Colbert's The Colbert Report on the Comedy Channel, called South Carolina "America's whoopee cushion" after a virtual unknown, Alvin Greene, won the Democratic Primary for the U.S. Senate. Green, who was unemployed and had no political experience, had recently been arrested for showing pornography to a University of South Carolina student.

During the campaign, Greene was asked how he would improve the state's economy if elected. He said that he would hire the unemployed to make action figures of himself. The Albert Greene action figures, the candidate said, would fly off the shelves like the "Tickle Me Elmo" dolls once did.

South Carolina State Rep. Anton Gunn acknowledged in an interview with The Politico that the state had developed a national image in politics. "I don't agree with it," Gunn said, "but there's this imagery of us being the whoopee cushion of the nation, and we continue to exacerbate that."

Comedy comes so naturally to South Carolina politicians that they're often at their funniest when they aren't trying to be, such as when former Gov. Mark Sanford put the "whoopee" in whoopee cushion.

In June 2009, Sanford went AWOL without telling anyone, including, presumably, his staff. When asked about the governor's whereabouts, his befuddled spokesman told reporters that Sanford was "hiking the Appalachian Trail." In reality, Sanford, who had run for office on his strong family values, was visiting his paramour in Argentina. Sanford's greatest contribution in office may have been his addition of the phrase, "hiking the Appalachian Trail" to the American lexicon.

A little more than two months later, South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson interrupted President Barack Obama during a speech by screaming, "You lie!" making him an immediate hero not only to the far right but to comedy writers, standup comics and editorial cartoonists,

As New Hampshire votes tonight, the GOP presidential candidates will remove their grease paint, put away their cream pies and banana peels, take down their tents, and take their show to South Carolina. There is no more fitting place for these particular candidates during this particular presidential campaign than in the state known as "America's whoopee cushion."

Christopher Lamb, lambc@cofc.edu, is a communication professor at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, from where he will be covering the South Carolina Primary this month. His fifth book, "The Sound and Fury of Sarah Palin" is forthcoming in February. This is his first piece for OfftheBus.