The Delightful Disruptiveness Of Stephen Colbert

This New York Times Magazine profile of Stephen Colbert has the problem many of these profiles of him or Jon Stewart do, which is that it’s impossible to find someone to criticize them, which is unfortunate. But what it does do well, I think, is to put some of Colbert’s key stunts into perspective, in a way that makes it very clear why I like him so much:

In August, during the run-up to the Ames straw poll, some Iowans were baffled to turn on their TVs and see a commercial that featured shots of ruddy-cheeked farm families, an astronaut on the moon and an ear of hot buttered corn. It urged viewers to cast write-in votes for Rick Perry by spelling his name with an “a” — “for America.” A voice-over at the end announced that the commercial had been paid for by an organization called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which is the name of Colbert’s super PAC, an entity that, like any other super PAC, is entitled to raise and spend unlimited amounts of soft money in support of candidates as long as it doesn’t “coordinate” with them, whatever that means. Of such super-PAC efforts, Colbert said, “This is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical.”…“Aren’t lawyers allowed to have fun?” Potter asked me a few weeks ago, adding that he knew what he was signing up for by appearing on the show. He also said he thought that Colbert was serving a useful function. “I’m very careful not to ascribe motive to him — he can speak for himself,” he said. “I don’t know what he’s thinking. He can find the laws ironic or funny or absurd. But he’s illustrating how the system works by using it. By starting a super PAC, creating a (c)4, filing with the F.E.C., he can bring the audience inside the system. He can show them how it works and then leave them to conclude whether this is how it ought to work.”

Easily the most awkward moment in Colbert’s career, and also in many ways a defining one, was his appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006…Never cracking a smile or breaking out of character, he went on to praise Bush for believing “the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday” and to point out that the administration wasn’t sinking but soaring. “If anything,” he said, “they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.” Nor did he leave out the correspondents themselves. “Over the last five years you people were so good,” he said. “Over tax cuts, W.M.D. intelligence, the effect of global warming: we Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try and find out.”…Many in the audience, the president in particular, seemed not to know what to make of this guy. Whose side was he on, and was he joking or not? Yet a video of the performance went viral within hours, and Stephen Colbert became something like a household name. Writing in The Times, Frank Rich said Colbert’s routine that night was the “moment when the American news business went on suicide watch.”

Longtime readers will know that I’m less fond of Jon Stewart. And I wonder if the reason I like Colbert more is a matter of emphasis. Stewart, I think, is a reformer, he’s optimistic about the capacity of the system, and that translates into his tactics. That’s the reason his march on Washington didn’t really resonate with me: it was too close to the things he was mocking to actually feel like a condemnation of the cults of personality he was lampooning. Colbert, by contrast, intervenes in ways that can be uncomfortably aggressive, and that are starting to force the system to step in and shut him down as they did when he tried to buy the naming rights to the South Carolina Republican primary. I’m interested in that kind of pranksterism, or, as the piece puts it about Colbert’s improv teacher Del Close, “more nearly a philosophy or a way of life than just a way of getting laughs.”