Presidential run backlash discussion – HuffPo Brings It

First, let me say something in the interest of full disclosure. Rachel Sklar and I have corresponded, and actually still do on a regular basis. I respect her as a journalist, and I e-mail her fairly regularly as simply a Colbert fan. She is also respected in the journalism circle, and even on the Pundit circuit – I know I’ve seen her on Scarborough Country a few times as “The Late Night Television Expert”. She’s a fan, she’s not a trend-hopper. And she’s a BIG fan. I respect her greatly, and respect her opinions very much.

Which is why I was a bit shocked to see her piece today in the Huffington Post. Now, as all of you know here on the site, this site is 100% Pro-Colbert. We may voice concerns about Comedy Central, or Viacom, or, but when it comes to Stephen and his career, we are amazingly biased in the positive. But Rachel has said things that, at least in the hard-core Colbert community, have remained thus far unsaid. At least this clearly.

I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with her 100%, but I am clearly saying that she makes a solid point, and she makes it with an authority that I personally believe to be a valid one. And, with this in mind, I bring you this article from the Huffington Post. I ask you to please feel free to dialogue, either in the positive or the negative, in the comments box, but please refrain from any Rachel-bashing. Or Colbert-bashing. Just keep it intelligent, ok? As a Nation, we tend to have knee-jerk reactions when someone says something about Colbert that we don’t agree with, and I want to make it extremely clear that this is not coming from a disinterested blowhard blogger, but from a true fan. And she raises points that really do warrant discussion within the Colbert fan community.

And here’s an issue that this blog post doesn’t address, but that I’d like to hear about from other Colbert fans. Between the WristSTRONG campaign, and the IAAASCY marketing push, and the election campaign, is anyone starting to feel a sense of oversaturation burnout at all? Does the election push really feel like it’s just too much for us all, as a Nation, to bear? Or is this another cause to throw our weight behind, and one that the whole nation can get behind as well?

Stephen Colbert, I Love You, But It’s Enough
Huffington Post | Rachel Sklar | October 22, 2007 06:52 PM

2007-10-22-Colbertforpres.bmpThe 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner was something else, truly. “Truthiness” is now part of the lexicon because it captured something pervasive and insidious and antithetical to the “reality-based community,” and just naming it made it easier to call out. The GreenScreen challenge — hilarious and fun, same as that business with the Hungarian bridge and Wikipedia and the elephants. Yes, your ice cream is waffly and delicious, stealing O’Reilly’s microwave was hilarious, and we all know how I feel about WristStrong (hi, Jeff Berc!). There is no question that the show is terrific — funny, sure, but reliably sharp as hell, between “The Wørd” and the interviews and the segments. Sometimes it’s goofy hilarity like getting a Florida congressman to admit to loving hookers and blow; sometimes it’s devastating gotcha television like making Bill Kristol squirm over PNAC; sometimes it’s just how he manages to shake great TV moments out of people like Jane Fonda or Barry Manilow orHenry Kissinger. All of it has combined to make Colbert — a funny, smart, and clearly fundamentally decent guy — an incredible force in pop culture and media.

But seriously? It so does not mean he should run for president.

It’s a terrible idea on many different grounds. Comedically, it’s an extreme gag and an unoriginal one at that — getting a bridge named after you in Hungary or branding a minor-league Ontario baseball team or whooshing a museum for yourself into existence or getting a red piece of plastic around Matt Lauer‘s wrist — those are all inherently way funnier than ye olde joke candidate. Really, if it’s already been a Robin Williams movie — which tanked — then seriously, don’t go there. Also, it threatens to get old soon — how much jokesterism on shows like “Meet The Press” before audiences (sorry, voters) grow weary? Sure, we see him every night in character, but it’s a character reacting to different people and their different projects and different stories to boot; when the interviewer becomes the interviewee and he’s got nothing new to offer, it’s a different story. As much as I enjoy Stephen Colbert on his show — and readers of this column have probably figured out that I do — I found myself a bit exasperated by his bit on MTP (though I did appreciate Tim Russert‘s straight-man send-up of himself doing to book-quote “gotcha” – though he couldn’t help giggling in the process, which broke the fourth wall in a way that undercut the exercise). Colbert’s character is great in an interview for forcing people to defend their positions; in this case, it just added up to meaningless bluster. He doesn’t want gay marriage because he only got married so he could taunt gay men? Weak the first time, unimaginable as a talking point over and over again. What has been so great about Colbert is how he uses the character to make the larger point, one which often translates into trenchant (and, let’s face it, earnest) political commentary. This way, he’s using the character to obfuscate instead of illuminate.

It’s also a terrible idea politically — that is, for the political process. Now is the time for the fringe players to slip away. Bye-bye, Brownback, so long Kucinich (we predict) and Gravel (we hope). The race is tightening, stakes are getting higher, and the general feeling is that this is where things start to count. The distraction of a spoof candidate — even the ultimate spoof candidate — will just get in the way.

It’s a good idea for his book, I’ll give him that. But wow, that would sort of be a sell-out.

I don’t think, as Jeff Bercovici does, that Colber should just stick to making jokes and stay in his little box — I thought the White House Correspondents Dinner material was as hilarious as it was cutting — he’s already in the arena and was from his first show, when he loosed the word “truthiness” on the world. Probably he didn’t know that he’d end up being such a truth-to-power speaker, or at least perceived so much as one. But, he is — that’s the role he’s carved out for himself and it’s a good one, a smart one — ironically, much smarter than this traipse along the campaign trail looks to be. Maybe I want Colbert in a box as much as Bercovici does, I don’t know. It’s just where I think he’ll do the most good. Is it old-fashioined, in the presidential race, to want that?


  1. Wow. Serious stuff.

    I’m stuck in the phase that focuses on how fun this all is, and haven’t moved on to the phase that considers things in a more serious context. So I’m looking forward to reading some reactions to this post.

  2. With all due respect to Ms. Sklar, I have to disagree with most of what she is saying here. I think this is a trap that a lot of people are falling into, taking this whole run for president in South Carolina way too seriously. This is a wonderful opportunity for Mr. Colbert to expose some of the holes in our election process. As he said, if he can get on the primary ballot, anyone can – if they have the money. The whole process is corrupt anyway, so why not have some fun with it?
    And I find it interesting that some of the people in the media who have helped build Mr. Colbert into a cultural icon are the same ones trying to take him down a notch. Now that he is so popular, the more intriguing story is to tear him down.
    Sorry for the long comment.

  3. I’m confused with why the media is taking this so seriously. Stephen running is obviously a joke. He’s running in one primary, in both parties, and says he wants to lose twice, then fills out forms with joke names with silly pens. Why is this article and some others acting like he’s real?

  4. There was one bit of that I didn’t really understand … Kucinich and Gravel and all those others are going to be eliminated anyway. Colbert’s not causing that. Colbert would not determine who eventually got the nomination, not at all. So maybe a few thousand people vote for him, it’s not a big deal. The “spoof candidate” isn’t really *distracting*, I don’t think – it’s to the side of all this. He hasn’t really ingrained himself in the political process. His entire run is pretty superficial. And so to claim that he’s actually going to mess with the political process isn’t I don’t think valid. The people who are going to vote for him are those who were already disillusioned with the political process and who would have probably either cast their vote for a fringe candidate or not voted at all. I don’t know. I just think that having variety in the presidential race on the basis of intentions and attitude are just as important as personality and platform. And it’s not like most of what candidates say is actually really relevant anyway; Colbert is just a step beyond that.

  5. I totally agree with what you guys have said. I welcome Stephen’s involvement in the “election.” I’m tired of how long the process became this cycle and with all the cookie-cutter candidates. He won’t be involved in the home-stretch and the final contenders will have plenty of time to stump and bore us ad-nauseum. Bring it on, Mr. Colbert! Give us something to laugh about :-)

  6. lincognocity says:

    She’s right, on a lot of points – I thought it was funny up until he started going on “Meet the Press”. Then, suddenly, it was a little moment of “Um.. wait a minute.”

    This seems to me the worst time in history to be making a joke out of the political process – making jokes about the political process is one thing, as long as come election day everyone bucks up, votes, and remembers the incredibly high stakes that are up for grabs in this election. Making a joke of the political process itself is entirely another thing and on one level, that’s what Stephen is doing.

    It will sell lots of books, it’s got a lot of people talking about him, and I suppose on one level any publicity for a celebrity is good publicity.

    On the other hand, the part of me that wishes to see the political system mean something again is utterly appalled by what he’s doing.

  7. I’d have to disagree with Rachel Sklar also, and I don’t really think it will be oversaturation. The show seems to revolve around a series of games for us to play. Wriststrong was on its way out, so now we have Colbert ’08 to entertain us until January. He’s exposed the absurdities of punditry by embodying them, I imagine he can do the same for the primary process. We can probably have faith in Stephen that he will make this alot of fun :)

  8. I do agree with one point Ms.Sklar makes: the MTP interview (the in character one) was not very funny or interesting. And I too at first had the same misgivings when Stephen ‘announced’, that his run would consist of him pontificating in the way he did on MTP, in a manner that simply duplicates what he does on his show or has already said (in his book, e.g.)

    But now we’ve seen some of his campaign shtick, he clearly is not going to do that. His comedic instincts are sharper than that. It was Tim Russert who chose the format in the interview; my sense was Stephen was not having much fun–it’s not the kind of direction he intends to take this thing.

    I think DB does rightly point out that there is a certain saturation point that has been reached. (In the last few days I’ve sort of expected Stephen to appear above my gum-line, or peeking out from toilet bowl). But I think that is simply a factor of his choosing to ‘declare’ while touring for the book.

    In the end I think Stephen decided to ‘declare’ now, not because he’s unaware of incurring a certain backlash or risking overexposure, but because he’s looking ahead creatively: he’s done two years of TCR, and he wants/needs to take his character to new levels of lunacy. He doesn’t want to repeat himself. I’m sure he’ll find all kinds of ways to expose the ridiculous nature of our political system. I’m sure he’ll do that so successfully that in the months to come, after the publicity of the book tour dies down, we’ll be wanting more of Stephen, not less.

  9. Roxy: Why is this article and some others acting like he’s real?

    I don’t believe Ms. Sklar thinks this is serious, I think her concern is that this is one joke that’s a bad idea and is likely doomed to fail. I think it’s too soon to say that it’ll flop; I’m waiting to see what Stephen does with it. He mined an awful lot of comedy gold out of his broken wrist, and at the time I thought that would get old pretty fast. I believe he’s capable of drawing out an equal amount of comedy from a fake run for the presidency, and at the same time show what a farce the entire campaign process has become. (“Clusterf@#ck to the White House” sums it up beautifully. Kudos to the Daily Show writer who thought of that.)

    That said, Ms. Sklar expresses some of the uneasiness I’ve felt ever since Stephen announced his candidacy. Yeah, it could be a great joke, but can this joke have an effect on the real election? I really don’t know. If it gets people to examine the campaign process and realize what a ridiculous circus it has become, then all right, get on with it. But I do see her point about it being a distraction to the real electoral process. How much of a distraction remains to be seen. As the sideshow to the circus, it’ll hopefully be entertaining (God knows this election could use some real entertainment). But I hope it doesn’t draw too much of the focus away from the real candidates and the important issues.

    I felt reassured when “Stephen” said on MTP on Sunday that his ambition is limited to running in the SC primary and getting enough votes to have one delegate at the convention. Not that I had any real fear he would genuinely try to get elected; no, I just wanted to be sure he’d know the appropriate time to get out of the way and let the election proceed without the distraction of a “joke” candidate.

    Re: DB’s question about Stephen possibly being overexposed*, I’d have to say not yet… but it might be getting close. I think, as diehard fans who live Colbert-centric lives, we’re so attuned to everything he does that it might actually be too much for us sometimes. I think to maintain a more balanced perspective, it’s better to pull back from the brink of obsession just a little bit (…says the woman who is going to the 92nd St. Y tonight to bask in the glory that is Stephen’s presence…).

    *Yeah, there’s a dirty joke in there somewhere, but I’ll resist for now.

  10. When I first read this piece yesterday I thought maybe Rachel was being very ironic – someone in the the media writing about Colbert being guilty of being in the media too much? Um, if you were asked to be on MTP wouldn’t you do it? Was it Stephen’s responisbility to tell MTP producers that they really didn’t want to do that? It’s like the WHCD – he knew they didn’t want him there, but he just had to try to see what would happen.

    I don’t see it as Stephen’s culpability that he is in the media so much. Is there evidence that he’s calling AP and Reuters and telling them to put a piece about him on the wire every day? Frankly, there would have been less publicity if this piece had never been written.

    As for doing this as a publicity stunt to sell the book – being the ‘true believer’ that I am, I think Stephen did this because he thought that is what his character would do. Hell, the book was already a best seller weeks before it was released and long before they were talking candidacy.

    That said, I fear a backlash from the public and a burnout among some and I don’t think that he’s presenting his sharpest wit and satire in this game. Stephen is just playing the character and I don’t think he is trying to orchestrate our reactions. He knows full well that the best comedy has an organic component that grows – he’s just giving us a character to play against and waiting to see what will happen. That’s why the green screen challenge was so great. That’s why the bridge voting was so fun. The fact that MSM has to package everything in it’s own marketing terms and fit every event into one of its little boxes doesn’t mean the real it-getters have to respond by picking one of there 3 or 4 predicted ways. What do you think would have happened if papers had no more than a little “isn’t it funny” one line mention of the candidacy and then never mentioned it again? “Stephen” would have responded in character and moved on.

  11. While I take Ms. Sklar’s point about his current overexposure (and the mostly lame MTP interview) I think the opportunity to mock the candidates from the inside, with their own rhetoric, to their faces a la the WHCD (assuming he gets to debate them) is too good to pass up. It even might make them double check their absurdities and pull a few cliches from their stump speeches. It might also have an added benefit of getting disinterested or usual nonvoters back into the process. So while some cynics may say it’s all about selling his book, I think he has a bigger agenda.

  12. What makes me kind of laugh in all those media reactions is that tons of them kept asking Stephen “but when are you going to run for president ??” a joke of course. Well now he’s running. As a joke. And suddenly they don’t find it that funny. Well.

    I’m pretty certain Stephen will drop out with a good hilarious excuse if something turns ‘bad’. That’s why I don’t think we should worry about the voters and all.
    That Stephen is everywhere on TV, well it’s what happens when you’re famous and have a new book.

    I’m sad so many people are ‘disappointed’ or take this run so seriously.
    Stephen’s not stupid, can’t they trust him a little more ?
    Okay I’m biased, but..still. I trust him to make it funny and not f*ck anything up.

  13. Michele V. says:

    I think we all need to take a step back and have a little more fun with his “running for President.” Let’s put a little more faith and trust in Stephen! I don’t believe his plan is to “undo” the election process..if anything..I believe it casts it in a brighter light. I believe that by Stephen “declaring his candidacy” he will make other voters that wouldn’t normally pay attention sit up and take notice. I, for one, only see good things for matter what way he decides to take his “candidacy.” So lets stand with Stephen and have a some fun with him! Thank you for your humor, Stephen!

  14. Well, I do agree that the MPT interview was not that great – Stephen will have to find a way to keep these interviews fresh, or stop doing them and constrain the campaign to his show’s standard format. There are numerous ways he could back up his “platform” in character to parody the positions of the “real” candidates. But he’s had similar problems bringing the character outside of Comedy Central before (O’Reilly comes to mind) – the interviewer tries to talk to Stephen instead of “Stephen”, and it falls flat. So if he can just get them to start taking “Stephen” seriously in the same way that his guests do, I think it’d start getting better. I get that that will be hard, because he’ll have to both cede control to the interviewer *and* maintain control of his ability to respond for maximum comedy … but I have faith that if they do keep up with the in-character press appearances, they’ll figure it out and improve in the “funny” department. It took a few tries for the interview and BKAD segments on the show to gel; this is just another step.

    And similarly, I don’t think anything he’s done with his candidacy is outside the realm of what’s been done before on the show. To me a run for the presidency feels like the logical next step for the character to take. His responses have been consistent with the character, too – using lots of words to say nothing, declaring his views loudly and often, not budging his position on anything. Pat Paulsen, running as a comedian, could make the blatantly satirical and biting jokes (and I think that’s what I’d expect if, say, Jon Stewart were to run). Stephen is running as a character, though, and while he’s a comedic character, he takes himself and his campaign very seriously, so he *can’t* take it in that ha-ha direction and still be true to the character and the campaign. It’s at least one step beyond any previous joke candidacy. It’s a very difficult position, because he can’t just *be funny*, he has to rely on others to play along by getting the joke and then still taking him at face value, and then *further* rely on the audience to grasp the satire. He’s playing an extended improv scene with a bunch of schmucks who haven’t learned how to “yes-and”, basically!

    But anyway, I’m not overdosed (yet); I’m fascinated with the layers and the implications to this whole thing! And I think as we see it play out over the next few weeks/months, it will continue to be awesome.

  15. In terms of affecting the election, this is not a big deal. Stephen has said it all stops in South Carolina. He is also a smart guy; if something goes wrong (including if it repeatedly fails to bring the funny), he can easily remove himself. But really, I’m not exactly sure what people are expecting will go wrong.

    As for oversaturation-of-Colbert, I’d rather wait and see what he does as this moves along to decide whether or not it’ll flop. Using Russert’s interview as some kind of crystal ball is faulty. I can’t be the only one who got frustrated that Russert was asking “Stephen” about the actual Stephen’s opinions, referring to quotes the character would not say or things the character would not do. He was muddying the waters and the joke didn’t come through clearly, if at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if that threw Stephen off.

    Though I suppose Stephen has a responsibility for that, to be careful as to who he agrees to be interviewed by and maybe even to supply some instruction before it. It’s a rocky start, but let’s see where it goes before deciding he’s going to mess up.

    Bringing up Man of the Year is irrelevant, as anyone who’s seen that movie can tell you the people who made it didn’t seem to know if they wanted to be funny or serious. And also because the main character was running seriously, not as a joke. And all other details that make that comparison make no sense at all.

  16. Splendiferous_Zeppelin says:

    I have to say that I think his running must a good thing – at least on a certain level – since it has spawned so many interesting discussions about satire and the nature of our political process. :) I personally was not convinced by Ms. Sklar’s article (I’m not saying her view isn’t valid; I’m just saying I personally wasn’t convinced by it). I see in an abstract way why it might be a bad idea, but every time I think about the issue, I end up coming up with more concrete reasons why he *should* pull off this gag than why he shouldn’t. I don’t find any of her points particularly convincing.

    1) “Extreme and unoriginal…” I don’t think it’s particularly extreme (especially in today’s crazy political world) or unoriginal (what does a Robin Williams film have to do with his character? as Gaia Faye said above me, that seems irrelevant).

    2) “It threatens to get old.” The Colbert Report itself, a few days in, threatened to get old. Nobody thought it would last for more than eight weeks, let alone two highly successful years. Let’s wait a while to judge the effort on the “threatening to get old” front.

    3) “A spoof candidate will get in the way.” I don’t know that anybody knows this yet, either. It all depends on how the writers and him play it out. Yes, they have a huge responsibility to respect the political process, but the effort – if played correctly – might add to the discourse, not take from it. As several have said above me, let’s trust them! They’re a group of brilliant smart funny savvy people, and I’m sure they’re putting a lot of thought into this.

  17. The run in SC is also being used to garner much needed donations of needed school supplies for the schools. It’s just another “thing” Stephen is auctioning for a worthy cause.

  18. Does no one remember Pat Paulsen’s run for president? or Tanner, the documentary about a fake presidential candidate in the 1988 election (I think that’s when it was). i don’t get the short term memories of the media; the public can be excused because you all might be too young to remember those other runs by a comedian and a fake politician. Would that Stephen’s run could single-handedly corrupt our political process, but it can’t — the politicans and voting public get to do that, not a comedian running in one state. Ralph Nader maybe, just maybe, could be counted as a spoiler in 2000, but Stephen Colbert running in one state only? Folks, get a grip, read his book, watch his YouTube videos in addition to the Colbert Report, and glory in the wonderfulness that is Stephen Colbert.

  19. I think it’s already raised some interesting issues that I wouldn’t have given any thought to. The filing process and fees, the whole question of keeping coverage equal (loved the post that MsI found on election reform), the corporate sponsorship questions. And that’s just the first week. The Donors Choose straw poll is a nice touch and typical of Stephen’s determination to use his powers for good. An early primary race is hardly on the level of the Nader-Gore split. And what an angle on the convention if he could get one delegate. So many ways to top the 2004 TDS coverage! As others have said, I think we can trust Stephen to know if the joke is getting old and tweak it as needed.

  20. hard done by says:

    I have a question from a transfixed[me] UK observer; Do you have anything like the Monster raving loony party in the US?
    We also had a monkey elected mayor once,the voters used the candidate as a means to express disgust with the political parties;

  21. I am confident that Stephen will unleash a fresh look at the candidacy, election process and all the salad dressing it goes with it… I am very tired of watching candidates from both sides trying to convince us that they will change the world for the best, when reality is that as soon as they have the power to run the show… nothing really will change for the vanishing middle class and the even more devastated lower class… Mostly, for this planet that is seriously getting pissed of at all of us…

    I think Stephen will accomplish an excellent job either he will let his closest friend, Mr. Colbert, run the show or if he will give a chance to let the “man” ride along the breakers… Hopefully it will be a balanced act of the two, an eye-opener for whoever thinks only black & white is the way to go… So far, Colbert is the only one to embody all the shade of rainbow necessary to make this excruciatingly long, expensive, corrupted and decadent process more interesting and possibly involving more people in the… “black box voting machines system…”

  22. Wow! I read Rachel’s piece and wondered if she were really a “true” fan. I trust in Stephen to keep bringing teh funny. So far, I’m not tired of him. I just finished the book, and I sport my Wrist Strong bracelet proudly every day. And I thought the MTP “interview” was hilarious. Timmeh calling out Stephen on his statements from the book? The Bert doll? It went like every other interview of a politician went on that show, IMO. (Let them make their talking points. Bring up stuff they’ve said, trying to create controversy. Make friends at the end. It’s all theatre!) Only this was fun, because it was our Stephen. I, for one, can’t get enough of him. And as far as the candidacy goes, he’ll know when it’s time to exit the race. The whole arc will be fantastic, I’m sure. Stay strong, Nation!

  23. I found MTP less funny than Stephen’s other appearances too, but for me, it was because Russert refused to budge and give “Stephen” more leeway to bring the funny. But keeping the regular level of MTP in mind, it was hilarious.
    Time and again, Stephen shows that he’s smarter than what people expect or fear. Even now, when our expectations are higher than ever. Can’t we just postpone our judgement until we see more? Rumors of shows in South Carolina has been circulating for months. The people at TCR have earned my trust by delivering time and again. I’m sure they’ve looked at every angle in that time, and thought of exit strategies (hey) if things got out of hand.
    The show, the character, the story arcs – they’re all a huge roller coaster ride, in my view. Wiser to get off if you don’t have the stomach for it.

If you're new to our Zoner community, please read the No Fact Zone Comment Policy before commenting. Thank you!