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The Colbert Factor

In the “one-two” punch of Comedy Central’s nightly “fake news” programming, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart sets ’em up, while Stephen Colbert delivers the knockout blow.

As Conan O’Brien recently said of Stewart and Colbert, together, the pair “have done for fake news what the Fox News Channel has done for fake news.” As a former correspondent on The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert perfected his fake news pitch with memorable moments that included an earnest sing-along to Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” as he walked through the crowd of delegates at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Modeled after conservative blowhard Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor, The Colbert Report brings the “truthiness” to viewers four nights a week with plenty of giddily tongue-in-cheek right-wing commentary. Colbert’s straight-man persona manages to be simultaneously egomaniacal, elitist, frighteningly anti-intellectual and loud–the worst characteristics of any number of “real journalists” like O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews.

As Colbert seriously explained to 60 Minutes, “‘truthiness’ is what you want the facts to be as opposed to what the facts are–what feels like the right answer as opposed to what reality will support.” In other words, it’s the standard operating procedure for most politicians and much of the mainstream media.

“Now, I’m sure some of the word police, the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are going to say ‘Hey, that’s not a word,’” Colbert told one audience, expounding on the concept. “Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books–they’re elitist.”

Colbert’s well-deserved skewering of the media has made for some terrific moments, particularly in April, when he hosted the annual White House correspondents’ dinner.

You could almost hear crickets chirping as he told a dining room full of black tie-clad members of the press to “write that novel you’ve got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction.”

In a more recent example, Colbert made a mockery of he-man journalist Geraldo Rivera, after Geraldo appeared on the O’Reilly Factor complaining that Stewart and Colbert “make a living putting on video of old ladies slipping on ice and people laughing.”

Bad move, Geraldo. Showing up on The Daily Show, Colbert demanded an apology–from Stewart, to Geraldo and “Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly.

“What are you implying Jon?” Colbert asked when Stewart balked at the idea. “That O’Reilly and Geraldo are narcissists enthralled with their own overblown egos? Projecting their own petty insecurities onto the world around them? Inventing false enemies for the sole purpose of bolstering their sense of self-importance? Itty bitty Nixons, minus the relevance or a hint of vision? How dare you!”

In a surreal but equally hilarious follow-up, Colbert forced Stewart to “walk a mile” in Geraldo’s mustache. Colbert’s free-form interviews make for some of the funniest moments, as both left- and right-leaning guests find out that no one can escape his truthiness.

When Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org recently pointed out that a majority of Americans and Iraqis want the U.S. out of Iraq, Colbert sounded like a cross between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a yappy terrier: “A majority of Americans thought Hitler was a great guy. That’s a fact.
“I just made up that fact, but it does not keep it from being a fact. So we shouldn’t have gone into World War Two? That’s what you’re saying? You just said, ‘I love Hitler.’ You don’t? You don’t love Hitler? You’ve got a funny way of showing it, attacking Joe Lieberman.”

The segment known as “The Word”–a rip-off of O’Reilly’s “Talking Points” segment, in which Colbert delivers a right-wing rant while a more “fair and balanced” version of things appears on a screen beside him to fill in the blanks–has also delivered some gems.

In one recent edition, the word of the day was “solidarity” as Colbert discussed a ruling declaring registered nurses to be “supervisors” in order to deny them the right to unionize. “Solidarity: as in, me and all my management buddies are in ‘solidarity’ about hating unions,” he said.

As supervisors, Colbert added, “you’ll get all sorts of perks–a new name plate,” (no pension), “new business cards,” (no health insurance) “and a new-found respect” (for the union you can’t join).

And in the “435-part series” of interviews with every member of the House of Representatives called “Better Know a District,” Colbert has been successful at getting a number of politicians to reveal the bottomless depths of their own stupidity.

In one of the best, Colbert asked Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), the co-sponsor of a bill requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in the House and Senate chambers, to actually name the Ten Commandments. The congressman managed to stumble though just three before sheepishly admitting that he couldn’t name the rest.

In another interview with Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Colbert goaded the incumbent–who’s running un-opposed for re-election–to say things like “I like cocaine because…it’s fun!”

And then he had a field day skewering NBC’s Today Show and ABC’s Good Morning America–which reported Wexler’s clearly joking comments as “career damaging,” even as they devoted air time to stories about pythons eating electric blankets and people “addicted to tanning.”

Moments like these make The Colbert Report one of the best shows currently on TV–and had me appreciating Colbert’s cry of anguish as he lost to singer Barry Manilow at last month’s Emmy awards: “I lost to Barry Manilow! Barry Manilow! I lost to the Copacabana!”

NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.

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NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.

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