First off, I must confess that I'm not a huge fan of Stephen Colbert. Before some of you start screaming at this post, let me say that I greatly appreciated his brilliant and daring performance at the 2006 White House Press Correspondents Dinner--as well as a few of his other bits and creative interventions in pop-media techno-culture. But frankly, I seldom watch "The Colbert Report." About twenty seconds after The Daily Show ends, I scramble for the OFF button on my remote. I don't think I've ever made it through a complete airing of The Report. It's like a "concept band" whose erudite music just doesn't work as music. I love that someone hates Bill O'Reilly so much that he has built an entire show, an entire on-screen persona, around the idea of mimicking and mocking that blowhard. Yet, to my particular viewing sensibilities, mock insufferable is still insufferable. Maybe even worse in some ways. Because a person who knows the difference, and plays upon it, should also know better than to subject us to an unrelenting version of it, even under the ironic covers of comedic relief and satirical resistance.
Now Stephen Colbert is taking his on-screen character off-screen in a bid to run for president. He's trying to make the ballot in South Carolina, and there are early indications that he'll try to get on other state ballots, too. He'll certainly draw attention. Wow wee--how far can he get? I'm not all that amused by such a spectacle. In fact, I think this new campaign of his is regrettable. He should stick with Jedi green-screen shenanigans for YouTube.
Hey, I've written books on the politics of irony--of which I generally approve, by the way; and I teach a course on the politics of comedy--of which I generally approve, by the way. And I do--really I do--have a funny bone, a sense of humor, an abiding fondness for caustic wit. And I often think our national politics are a big joke. I applaud Al Franken's serious candidacy for the U.S. Senate, though a comedian he may be. But I cringe at Stephen Colbert's buffoonish entry into the presidential arena, tongue-in-cheek though it may be.
Previous comedians who pretended to throw their hats into the U.S. presidential ring seemed to do so, I want to say, in order to make a larger point, in addition to providing giggles along the way. Pat Paulsen (who ran in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 1996) reminded us that speechifying politicos can be bombastic, bumbling, soporific and tone-deaf--lessons that Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry should have taken to heart. Wavy Gravy, in his cross-country "Nobody for President" campaign (in 1976, 1980, and 1984), gave humorous voice and a protest alternative to the frustration many citizens felt and still feel about our national politics, namely that few candidates of genuine worth offering genuine alternatives seem to be showing up on our ballots.
But what's Colbert's larger point, or what's the point that cannot be accomplished by remaining on the satirical sidelines? Oh sure, he seems ready and poised to spoof arrogant and self-centered politicians, a natural spillover from his Bill O'Reilly act. But mock self-centeredness is still, in his case, merely self-centeredness. His ostensible exposé of others seems hardly more than a ruse for self-serving self-aggrandizement, for both his on-screen and off-screen characters. Yes, he might provide a few amusing and welcome diversions from the parade of stiffs, rogues, and freaks who are currently running for higher office; and in contrast, he'll surely make more sense at times. The fool is often revealed to be the wise man, and vice versa--thank you, Shakespeare. Thank you, Mark Twain. Thank you, Will Rogers. Thank you, Bill Maher.
But no thanks to Stephen Colbert. We have a war-cum-occupation going on. Legacies of torture, governmental illegality, and rampant corruption that need to be addressed. Environmental ruin. Spiraling deficits. Children's (and others') health care at risk. And other mounting and pressing problems. Maybe now is not the time for a smart-ass wise-guy blurred-persona shtickster to step into the political limelight in order to poke fun at our already degraded political system. I don't want Bill O'Reilly to run for office, crossing some all-too-real threshold between reality TV and reality. Nor do I want his fake alter-ego to cross that threshold, either.