Register Friday | September 17 | 2021

Speaking Truthiness to Power

Stephen Colbert confronts the President and the press with hardballs of confusion

"Sorry, I don't lob softballs...I BRING it. I guess someone feels a little stung that he got nailed."

That's a quote in the finest journalistic tradition from Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, taken completely out of context. But those words are easily applied to Stephen Colbert's righteous smackdown of George W. Bush and the media at last Saturday's White House Correspondents' Association dinner. The dinner is an annual black-tie affair where politicians and journalists come together and try not to choke on their steaks (or choke each other) as they chuckle at broad comedy. In 2003, Bush yucked it up in a skit about scouring the Oval Office for WMD ("Those weapons of mass destruction gotta be somewhere!"). Last year, Laura Bush charmed the crowd with a ribald yarn about her husband milking a male horse.

But this was different. In front of an audience of 2,600-including assorted celebrities; politicians; the entire White House press corps; all of Bush's men (minus Rumsfeld and Cheney) and, only feet from the podium, the President and First Lady themselves-Colbert BROUGHT it. Posing as a Bush-worshipping anti-intellectual, he highlighted Iraq, tax cuts, global warming, torture prisons, propaganda, wire-tapping, Valerie Plame and the President's 32 percent approval rating; all the embarrassing realities, all the impeachable offences (except, sadly, for election fraud). And Colbert didn't spare the lazy, collusive press corps either.

During the half-hour roast, Bush's face shifted from politely amused to stone-cold, but it was the reaction of the mainstream media in the days following the event that revealed who really felt "a little stung." Their silence, detailed here, speaks volumes.

For those unfamiliar with the backhanded art of Stephen Colbert, watch his show. The Colbert Report (pronounced "re-POR") airs Monday through Thursday on the Comedy Network at 11:30 p.m. and on CTV at 12:35 a.m., immediately following The Daily Show. Colbert got his start in fake news as a correspondent on Craig Kilborn's incarnation of The Daily Show in 1997. Jon Stewart arrived in 1999 and turned what had been fluffy tabloid comedy into pointed satire of news and politics; a marriage of witty buffoonery and earnest, liberal commentary that by 2005 had paved the way for Colbert's spin-off. Although his original character on The Daily Show was closer to Stone Philips (the Report's first guest) the spin-off host he plays now is a "well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot;" all pomposity, narcissism and raging stupidity.

"Anyone can read the news to you," said Colbert on his first Report last October. "I promise to feel the news at you."

If this "feels" familiar, then perhaps you've seen Fox News, a fake news organization of a different kind. Its talking heads are little more than shills for the Bush administration who never let the truth get in the way of their neo-con spiel. Among the rogue's gallery of Fox News's right-wing blowhards is Bill O'Reilly (Colbert's primary role model), who is famous for calling people cowards, berating liberal guests and cutting off their mics. In one Colbert Report segment, the host debated "Lieber," a hippie radio personality played by David Cross and based partly on Air America's Al Franken (whose feud with O'Reilly rolls on). After scrapping the planned topic and pitching absurd curveballs ("Slave labour? I'm against it. Rebuttal"), Colbert pulled out the Republican's break-glass-in-case-of-emergency red-herring, 9/11. "Oh come on, September 11 has nothing to do with this!" cried Lieber. Colbert jammed his index finger in Lieber's face, yelling, "I'm not gonna let anyone sit here and bad-mouth our firemen! Sorry, not on my show, mister. Cut off his mic! What's that? I can still hear him. Is that my mic? Cut off my mic!"

Another O'Reilly-ism is "The Word." Graphically, it's a direct lift from The O'Reilly Factor's "Talking Points," but the content of Colbert's "bullet" cleverly contradicts or perverts his master's bullshit. The first Word was an original, "Truthiness," later named 2005's "Word of the Year" by the American Dialect Society who defines it as: "the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true." O'Reilly and his Fox friends Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough know all about truthiness. Whether they, and their female equivalent Ann Coulter, actually believe everything they say is uncertain-extreme punditry sells. All of them have written books, including the absurd O'Reilly Factor for Kids. Stephen Colbert's Balls for Kids is one of several phony tomes to make cameos on The Colbert Report, but Colbert recently scored a very real seven-figure deal for a book due late next year. Never fear, it's bound to be light on facts.

Considering recent forecasts of a Bill O'Reilly on-air meltdown, spurred by his bizarre feud with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, it's valid to question O'Reilly's grasp of his own faculties. In February, he said Colbert "ought to be sending me a cheque every week, 'cause we're basically the research for his writers. I feel it's a compliment."

If O'Reilly actually watched the Report, he'd notice that his protégé is an inbred, racist, sexist, homophobic closet homosexual with a small penis (watch the reruns, it's in there). Not only that, he doesn't read, dislikes children, sucks at sports, can't get laid, stalks his ex-girlfriend and has an unreasonable fear of bears. Why do you think the on-air Colbert calls O'Reilly "Papa Bear"?

It took a couple of months for Colbert and his writers to tighten up the jokes, nail the studio interviews and iron out a few other kinks (shame, mostly). Now, with that crucial extra layer of artifice, The Colbert Report has done the improbable and trumped The Daily Show. Variety recently described the show as "a ratings smash," and viewership has no doubt spiked since the White House performance, which was viewed by over 350,000 people in less than 48 hours on alone.

Colbert has taught us that sometimes guns don't kill people, ironic mockery kills people-a technique known as détournement (like Colbert's name, "It's French, bitch!"). But Colbert's secret weapon, as far as ratings are concerned, may be his way with the ladies. This is a rabid sci-fi obsessive from South Carolina, a long-time husband and father of three kids, a devout Catholic who teaches Sunday school. Yet Colbert-related blogs and message boards are filled with mash notes from chicks of all ages, not to mention the giggly, flirty, borderline raunchy behaviour of some of his female guests-namely Lorraine Bracco, Arianna Huffington, Connie Chung and conservative writer Caitlin Flanagan. Hell, even I have Stephen Colbert wallpaper on my PC, but really that's just a focal point for my outrage over being denied an interview for this piece. (For that, Mr. Colbert, you're a coward.)

Colbert has said that his "sexiness" is drawn onto the character, with cues from such sharp newsmen as CNN's Anderson Cooper-but fake-Colbert has claimed to be a gay icon, something you won't hear Cooper brag about. Wonks and wonkettes alike appreciate Colbert's "Brooks Brothers" charm and the confidence of his asinine bluster; knowing that there's a whip-smart, wholesome nerd on the flipside of the character is what seals the deal. Of course, now we know those balls he's always hyping are for real. And because a public skewering disguised as comedy may be the only comeuppance Bush will ever get, we should all be thankful.