Late-night comedians historically have relished the opportunity to poke fun at politicians. Sometimes they savage them. In the Obama era, they haven’t been so enthusiastic about any of it. A recent study of political jokes on three late-night shows (Letterman, Leno and Jimmy Fallon) by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that Barack Obama’s joke count is “substantially lower than any other president.”
Some of the Obama jokes are actually bipartisan slams. Jimmy Fallon joked, “Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are more mature than President Obama and John Boehner.” This is the classic comedian’s pose, and the safe one that all the politicians are ridiculous, squabbling poseurs. Still, it’s every bit as much pandering to the public as the politicians are.
But some self-aggrandizing comedians are constantly stepping off the sidelines and attempting to participate in, not just ridicule but political campaigns, too. At least once a year, Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert professes to get serious about politics. He portrays himself as a pompous Bill O’Reilly clone. The pomposity is not just an act. He’s engaged in a series of egotistical stunts to promote his own Nielsen ratings. Now he’s thrown his hat into the Republican primary ring to be elected “President of South Carolina.”
This is nothing new. In 1928, Will Rogers ran as the “bunkless candidate” of the Anti-Bunk Party. His only campaign promise was that, if elected, he would resign. When his name was seriously considered by voters, he wrote, “Now when that is done as a joke it is all right. But when it’s done seriously, it’s just pathetic.”
Stephen Colbert is just pathetic.
Of course, Colbert isn’t seriously running for president, any more than he was seriously testifying on migrant workers in that fiasco in front of the House Judiciary Committee in 2010. What, then, gives him the right to pontificate as if he were demanding that level of respect?
What makes these celebrities such bores is their pomposity. Witness Colbert and his comedic partner Jon Stewart holding a “Rally for Sanity” on the Saturday before the 2010 election, asking politicians and pundits to “take it down a notch for America.” A series of protest signs were proposed such as “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.”
In 2012, Colbert-for-President began with a satirical ad suggesting that if corporations were people then “Mitt Romney is a serial killer.” The ad asked voters to “stop Mitt the Ripper before he kills again.”
Naturally, Colbert would say he’s just satirizing what super PACs do. But that’s not true. He’s aiming to do to Romney what Tina Fey did to Sarah Palin — presenting the candidate as a politically toxic cartoon.
Ostensibly, Colbert and Stewart are exposing the glaring loopholes in federal (under) regulation of campaign ads. These Comedy Central hacks think there should be a government crackdown on negative political speech. In a skit on “The Daily Show,” Colbert mocked the “no coordination with candidates” rules: “Nation, I am calling on the super PAC not to run vicious character assassination ads that impugn and borderline slander any candidate — if in any way those ads can be traced back to me.”
How rich. Colbert should be granted an exception for his own PAC, since he works for a media company by the name of Viacom — a corporation that despises the very notion of federal regulation of anything it wants aired on TV. Comedy Central very much reserves the right to engage in vicious character assassination and borderline slander, and it does so virtually daily, regularly mocking God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Santa Claus, as they write laugh lines about the Devil ordering up “unbaptized baby-arm soup.”
Colbert, the critic of political viciousness himself, declared on his show, “Sarah Palin is a (bleeping) retard.” But he has spent the last week being honored by ABC, CBS and NBC with glowing interviews that present their opinion that he’s both very funny and very correct about the flaws in our under-regulated, under-civilized campaign-finance system. “That’s a debate that is worth having, and Stephen Colbert is having it,” declared Dean Reynolds on CBS. “He’s a great American,” oozed NBC weatherman Al Roker.
The media conglomerates have a glaring double standard when it comes to freedom of speech. Regulating political dissent from the super PACs of the super rich is the finest defense of democracy. But any imposition of content regulation on media companies is capricious tyranny.