Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Terrorism

This was a lesson for me. I fell into the trap of looking past unique unethical conduct because it resembled harmless conduct I had seen many times before, a close cousin of using “everybody does it” to excuse and invalidate the inexcusable. Thank goodness Washington Post columnist Colbert King was paying attention.

In King’s column today, he catalogues the activities of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert’s faux presidential run. I had already commented on Colbert’s gag earlier this week, but the target of my criticism was George Stephanopoulos, who devoted a ridiculous amount of time to a pointless interview with the comedian at the expense of real news. I assumed Colbert was just another in a long line of comedians who have used a presidential election year as a prop, and thus harmless….and I stopped paying attention to his antics. But as King ( his first name is pronounced KOHL-bert; the comedian’s name is Kohl-BARE) points out, Colbert has moved beyond satire into something akin to comedy terrorism, actively attempting to warp and influence the presidential selection process for laughs, and casualties be damned. King writes:

“…It’s one thing to play presidential politics for laughs. It’s quite another matter to run ads against candidates. A super PAC supporting Colbert urged Iowans in to write in Rick Perry “with an a” (Rick Parry) on the Ames straw poll, Politico reports, and recently has run ads in the Palmetto State accusing Romney of being a serial killer because the former Massachusetts governor “believes corporations are people and used to chop them up while at Bain Capital.” I fail to see the humor in Colbert urging South Carolinians to vote in Saturday’s primary for businessman Herman Cain, who dropped out of the presidential race but whose name remains on the ballot. Throwing away votes degrades a system already brought low by the unprecedented airing of negative ads so early in the nominating process.”

KOHL-bert goes on to compare Kohl-BARE’s conduct to Rush Limbaugh’s justly derided campaign to snarl the Democratic nominating process by urging his Hillary-hating  followers to vote for Mrs. Bill in the Ohio and Texas primaries in 2008, to maximize conflict at the Democratic National Convention. I flagged Limbaugh as unethical for that dirty trick, but Colbert’s pranks are worse. At least Limbaugh has a utilitarian argument, if a poor one: his objective was to elect a Republican, which he believed was best for the country. Colbert is willing to mess up the Republican election process just for laughs and ratings. Well, choosing a president is important to a lot of us. Stephen Colbert’s cynical stunt is irresponsible, disrespectful, unfair and a breach of his duty as a citizen.

It is made all the worse because of the degree to which Colbert and his colleague Jon Stewart are taken as serious pundits by cynics, progressives and the politically disenchanted on the sunny side of 30. He can’t have it both ways, but like Stewart, he tries, alternately making pointed political observations while pleading a clown’s immunity when he goes too far. For example, his anti-Romney ad undoubtedly fuels the indefensible complaint by Occupy Wall Street  naifs and the smugly ignorant that corporations shouldn’t have constitutional rights. (For a thorough explanation of why the increasingly common attacks on the legal personhood of corporations is both bad logic and dangerous policy, read Ken at Popehat, here.) Keeping people indignant, misguided and uninformed isn’t funny, it is irresponsible and dangerous.

Colbert King concludes:

“Acquiring the millions needed to get a presidential campaign off the ground requires grueling hours of asking people and groups to part with their treasures on behalf of your cause. Now introduce into that mix an entertainer who takes neither himself nor the political process seriously, who lives for laughs and satire, and has the prominence and enough dough to form a super PAC and try to muscle his way into the nominating process. The result is a mockery of the race. Maybe I’m becoming a curmudgeon. But I don’t see the humor.”

That’s because it’s not funny.

It’s wrong.



Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Citizenship, Government & Politics, Humor and Satire, Journalism & Media, Popular Culture

39 responses to “Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Terrorism

  1. Jack- every candidate, since the race began, has managed to make a Jackass (pronounced Jack+ass) out of him/herself. I can’t imagine how anyone with half a brain could take this race seriously. I enjoy the daily humor of the Stewart/Colbert tag team since very little “seriousness” remains left to undermine. The candidates created their own mockery. Perhaps the S/C humor is meant to drive that point home.

  2. Eric Monkman

    You don’t think Kohl-BARE is trying to help Obama get re-elected with his antics? I don’t think he is making Republicans look silly just for laughs and ratings.

  3. carsaparilla

    The point is not to get cheap laughs (he’s way too smart to waste his time on that) or to push his own sinister political agenda (who know what his agenda would be if he had one). The point is to illustrate how corrupt the campaign process has become ever since the Citizens United decision 2 years ago that allows campaigns to receive unlimited funds from super PACs. Everything he’s doing is to show how ridiculous and dangerous this completely legal activity is. And if it has people worried, it should. Because the system is screwed up.

    • So screw it up more. Who is he to do that? Terrorism, Arrogance. Ignorance. Stupidity. Recklessness. He’s a comic who has never run a business, managed a staff, gone to war, been elected, had people’s welfare in his hands. He is neither a scholar nor policy innovator. He has nothing to contribute but chaos for cynics who demand more.

      Citizens United notwithstanding, it is easier to learn the truth about candidates than ever before, and that’s a fact. Your argument is a partisan rationalization, and nothing more.

      • You just made a perfect argument against democracy, congratulations.

        Colbert is a comic. It is his sacred duty to mock power to its face, and I happen to think he’s doing it rather well.

      • carsaparilla

        He’s not running for president. You’re missing the whole point, but the irony is so huge and blunt, I can see how it’s easy to miss. The fact that he CAN legally do what he’s doing should be what angers people, and the fact that he has no agenda beyond exposing the corruption should be something people thank him for. If there’s a weakness in the system, it should be fixed before someone who can really exploit it gets the chance.
        Also, I’d love for you to explain how I’m giving a “partisan rationalization” when I don’t even have a party.

        • That’s completely incoherent. You do something unethical and destructive to make people angry that the system lets you do it? Stupid. All systems have flaws, and many flaws aren’t exploited because its clearly wrong to do so. We don’t need Stephen Colbert to show that the Super-Pac system can be abused, and if a comedian wouldn’t use the system to louse up legitimate campaigns, the fact that it could be done by some jerk wouldn’t be a problem. It’s like the disaster movies where some fanatic environmentalist launches a killer germ to show we’re too vulnerable to killer germs.

          Not that I think that’s really the motivation for Colbert—he’s just an irresponsible and arrogant comedian with an inflated sense of his own importance and wisdom. But if it were his plan, it would still be unethical.

          I assume that real fans of Colbert, who is even less bi-partisan than Stewart and whose entire act ridicules conservatives, tend to be anti-conservative and think Republicans should be foiled and sabotaged at every turn. If, on the other hand, you hold your views as a truly moderate or right ob center independent, 1) I apologize, 2) I’m impressed, and 3) you’re still dead wrong.

  4. carsaparilla

    If you need me to support my argument, here’s the thesis from his rally with Cain yesterday in South Carolina: “The media, he said, thought the rally was a joke. “If this is a joke, then they are saying our whole campaign-finance system is a joke!” ”

  5. Joe Parake

    Stephen Colbert is showing the American people in a very public fashion that coordination between candidate and the “no-limit funded” Super-Pac is extraordinarily easy to accomplish within the limits of the law, and the idea that they are somehow “wholly independent” (which I believe is the language the Supreme Court majority used to justify their ruling) is an absolutely absurd thing to assume. His stunt is not simply for laughs and ratings, in my opinion; it’s instead it is a very effective educational demonstration that shows the American people what is happening in the shadows, out in the open. Our political system is broken, and most Americans are disinterested (because they feel powerless to the influence of big interests); Colbert’s actions are a step in the direction of fixing both of those things. Calling this stunt “unethical” is just plain incorrect.

    • Nonsense. Nobody elected him reformer, and I dispute his qualifications and objectivity to serve as one. If he believes his Romney ad’s nonsense about corporations as persons, then he’s also a dolt. Sarcasm and facetiousness is no way to clarify anything, nor is it remotely constructive or honest.

      This what makes it comedy terrorism. It seeks to screw up a system that already has enough problems,without any constructive ideas, and then, when criticized, he will cry, “Hey, I’m just a comedian. Dishonest if you are right, reckless if I am, and either way, despicable.

      • “Comedy terrorism?” The only people who would be terrorized by this are the people who are making a mockery of democracy by pulling the levers of government, so they can benefit from it, without taking responsibility for any damages their policies incur.

        Are you really suggesting that Obama should have Colbert assassinated, or at least detain him in Guantanamo “indefinitely?” Or has the concept of “terror” completely lost any meaning?

  6. Bob In Minnesota

    I don’t like what Colbert is doing but let’s keep it in perspective: we have a corrupt system with obscene amounts of money poured in from monied interest groups hidden behind the shield of Superpacs with the mantra of “free speech” and candidates disavowing any control over what is said on their behalf. This is legalized corruption. We need to focus on what’s most important.

    • Which his nonsense interferes with.

      Cool it with the Super-Pac indignation. It’s wasted money on anyone who has the brains to vote anyway, because only a fool is swayed in the assessment of a leader by anonymous attack ads. The truth is out there and readily available, and if someone is too lazy to look, THAT’s the problem, not the system, not money,not Super-Pacs.

      • I think you underestimated the number of fools who are eligible to vote. They’re everywhere, even at the highest levels of government!

        Elections today require huge amounts of money to reach those voters who are swayed by ads, because there’s a lot of them to fight over, so those who have the money, get to choose who can even hope to have a realistic shot at getting elected. That system has brought us a campaign where the most conservative Republican is given no chance for winning the conservative vote in a field full of knuckleheads (can you, sir, fathom casting a vote for President Newt? What abomination could conceive such a possibility?), and campaigns focus on attacking the other candidate, instead of policy. Our campaigns look like this, because it doesn’t matter who wins anyway; the same people are hedging their bets by supporting multiple candidates, and will certainly shower gold on the winner, as long as their policy directives are followed.

        • So the complaint is that you want the fools to be deceptively influenced your way rather than another way?. Fools are fools. If they aren’t capable of voting intelligently, that’s the problem. Luckily, most of the fools stay home. As with most adverting, there is little data that shows the vast impact people fear.

      • Bob In Minnesota

        The politicians of course need money, lots of it to run a campaign and get ads in the media. It doesn’t make any difference whether you or I believe it works. The political parties believe it. So huge amounts are raised and corruption continues.

        You soft pedal the Superpacs, their influence and I guess the enormous amounts of money in the game. Is it ethical to have the amounts of money put in the system to continue to increase as they do? Too many politicians spend too much time raising money by all means for elections rather than do the job they were elected to do. More money required= even less time to do their work.

        There are lots of “facts”out there. However, objective evidence to back up statements and facts always seems to be in short supply.

  7. Colbert is pointing out the mockery that is our electoral system by showing how ridiculously easy it is to distort it.

    The SC prank is harmless, because it’s fair to assume that few registered Republicans would be willing to “send a signal” to Colbert by voting for Cain, and any stupid enough to fall for the prank would do us all a favor by throwing away their votes.

    How many Democrats listen to Rush Limbaugh, anyway?

    • Re Rush: those primaries were open to all, like the New Hampshire primary.

      The “show the system is flawed by wrecking it” is the hacker’s rationalization. And you’re giving Colbert too much credit—he couldn’t care less about reforming the system. He wants his yuks, and is willing to mess with the integrity of our elections to get them. That makes him a self-centered, arrogant, reckless jerk.

  8. Becky

    I’ve enjoyed some of the ridiculousness on his and The Daily Show about the SuperPAC. The hijinks they do are LEGAL, and most people didn’t know that what they are doing onscreen doesn’t cross the ‘coordination’ Iine, legally. I didn’t know they were running attack ads, though. BUT, I gotta say I find it kinda funny to think of Mitt Romney as a serial killer- it’s SO too far it’s obvious comedy, to me.

    • The offensiveness of the ad isn’t the serial killer joke, but the implied ridicule of corporation as “persons.” As I explained in the post. Did you read the link?

      • Eric Monkman

        What’s wrong with ridiculing the idea that corporations are “persons”? Corporate personhood is a legal fiction and a lot of legal fictions are kind of ridiculous when thought through (witness a lot of the humour of W.S. Gilbert). The idea that corporations should be able to exercise some of the rights of human beings (e.g. the ability to enter into contracts) is a great one. The idea that “corporations are people too” is a little absurd (not that I believe that this is what Romney was trying to say).

        • But that’s the point…what he was saying was in fact true, and a bunch of idiots think he meant it literally. Misinformation is not humor. It’s static and deception.

          • Eric Monkman

            I found the joke funny. I doubt anyone truly believes that Romney is a serial killer because he dismantled corporations while at Bain, so where’s the misinformation? Romney was correct to say that the profits of corporations do ultimately go to human beings, but the way he said it (“Corporations are people, my friend”) was a bit odd. Pointing out the oddity is humorous.

            • The serial killer joke IS funny, but the subtext of the joke is ignorant. With the decades of TV ads we have watched with fresh-faced workers of all races saying “We are GE” “We are Ford”, “We are Chevron,” I see nothing odd or even slightly in accurate to say corporations are people. All organizations are people—what else are they supposed to be made up of? Aliens? Chipmunks? Mannikins? It was the kind of situation I genuinely hate, when someone says something clear and accurate and is pilloried for it by unscrupulous partisan hacks. You wonder why policy debate is carried on at such an infantile level: Exhibit A.

              • Eric Monkman

                Corporations are made up of people. Saying “Corporations are people” is correct in the sense that objects or concepts are what they are made of (“Man is what he eats”, as Ludwig Feuerbach would put it). Romney’s statement is funny because it sounds like he saying that a corporation is itself a person. To give an example somewhat germane to necrotizingfacism’s reply, if I said “People are food”, meaning that people are made of the food that they eat, my statement would be humorous because it would sound like I was saying that man is on the menu.

                In Romney’s case, the statement is especially humorous because it fits with the image that many people have of him: that he is a multimillionaire capitalist who is out of touch with ordinary people. That a corporation is itself a person is the sort of thing a high-powered businessperson who operates in an environment where corporate personhood is taken for granted would assert. Is this an infantile coarsening of public debate that is unfair to Romney? Maybe, but people often address serious issues through comedy. One of the big issues in this election is the conflict between Romney’s competence, and, for the lack of a better way to put this, his lack of compassion (I don’t know whether he really lacks compassion, but this is certainly how is is and will be portrayed by his political opponents). Romney’s business acumen might mean that he will be better able to improve the economy, but people fear that he may not be attuned to the human costs of his policy choices (think of some of the businesses he ran for Bain: he may have saved the business, but at the expense of laying off some workers). Would it be better if everyone could sit down and talk about these ideas in a non-infantile way? Maybe, but it is unlikely to happen. Lacking that, comedy will have to suffice as a way for people to voice their fears and ideas.

                • As always with Colbert and Stewart, comedy and political advocacy are blurred. I would have no problem with an unequivocal comic, no matter how politically satiric or slanted—say, Chris Rock—running for president. People do tale Colbert seriously, and he knows it.

                  Your justification of Romney being criticized for an absolutely accurate statement is pure confirmation bias, no?

                  All I know about compassion and Romney is that he has stayed with his wife after her illness was diagnoses—unlike, say, “compassionate” John Edwards and victorious Newt Gingrich. As for firing: I’ve fired a lot of people, always for the good of the organization. In theater, for example, firing an actor who isn’t doing the job is devastating to him or her, yet absolutely necessary. In amateur theater they usually won’t do it, because making people feel good is a higher priority than the quality of the show. Romney is a professional. [Guess the next sentence!]

                  • Eric Monkman

                    Sometimes making an accurate statement is a reflection on how we think. Obama has done it too. When he told Iowa farmers to go to Whole Foods and look at the price of arugula, he probably wasn’t wrong to suggest that the price of arugula had gone up, yet he was still made fun of for saying it, given that there are no Whole Foods markets in Iowa. It was funny because it supported the idea that Obama was out of touch with ordinary Americans, an idea based on his childhood in Indonesia, the fact that he spent most of his adult life in big cities, the fact that he had very little private sector experience, etc. Was this confirmation bias? Sure, but it gave people a chance to consider whether Obama was qualified for the top job. Would it be nice if people would sit down with their neighbours like philosophers and have a deep conversation about the relative merits of each candidate? Sure, but its a bit unlikely. Humour gives people a chance to air their worries and think about issues when they would not otherwise do so.

                    As for Romney not being compassionate, I’ve never met the man so I can’t really say. I’m sure he is a perfectly nice man, good to his family, etc., but he has a bit of a reputation as the sort who sometimes sees a valid solution to a problem and, so long as he is sure that it is will solve the problem, doesn’t really think about the consequences for others. Think about when he strapped his dog to the roof of his car for a many hour journey, hosing it down to keep it clean. He solved the dog transport problem, but at what cost to the dog?

                    As for firing people, I agree that sometimes firing people is necessary. In Romney’s case, sometimes a corporate reorganization is necessary to save the company. Then again, sometimes it is just increases profits. If employees could vote for their CEOs like citizens vote for their leaders, you can bet that they would only vote for a CEO who will slash jobs only if it is absolutely necessary to save the company. With Romney, voters have to decide whether they think he can turn the economy around, and, if he can, at what cost?

      • Becky

        Yes, i love reading your stuff and stuff you link to. Problem is, most Americans think the decision does mean corporations are treated like people. But i confess to a big bias for anything jon and steven get up to- i’m in for almost everything they throw at me- i laugh. I didn’t know the decision didn’t really hold that til i read your reason why it doesn’t, frankly.

  9. Jeff

    I’m gonna say this: I think the way he’s demonstrating how Super-PACs work is really illuminating. I’m not gonna claim it’s right. I just think it makes for a good demonstration of how silly the money system is.

  10. Jack, Kohl-Bare has never set this up as a serious run for President. From the very beginning, he’s claimed to be “running” for President of the United States of South Carolina. I would have thought that this would have made it abundantly clear the “run” was not serious, thus the antics of his Super Pac were not to be taken serious either. Perhaps a lot of folks just didn’t get the initial joke, and blindly followed. Sounds a lot like how some people vote without uncommon distractions. While I can see your point about further screwing up an already bad system, I think your argument would have a lot more weight if Colbert was actually stating his run for President of The United States. In my mind he’s made an important distinction that keeps him within the bounds of political satire, and ethical behavior as such. Does this point make a difference in your thinking? I hope so. If only so I might claim a small victory!!

    • I agree that it’s not a serious run for president; never thought it was. It is an excuse to run attack ads and advocate things like writing in the names of non-candidates, like Cain. If it was all a joke, that would be one (harmless) thing—I’ve seen that before, since Pat Paulsen of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” ran in 1968 and ’72. What bothers me is that it’s also a device to set up a platform for political mischief and combat. Doesn’t that bother you a little? I was impressed that Colby King, as straight-line a Democrat as there is, was offended by Colbert mucking with the Republican primaries. The issue for him wasn’t the campaign but actively interfering with other candidates. Why should a gag take up 15 minutes on ABC’s Sunday morning show that could be devoted to educating the audience about an actual candidate?

  11. I’m truthfully torn. As a joke, it’s easy for me to blow off almost anything that results from it. Because it was so obviously a joke, any effort at interference, I thought, would be viewed in that context. And the citizens united aspect of this clearly meant to make a point. It seems that we’re in the midst of an age where anyone with money can run a political ad saying anything. What scares me though, is that I’m not seeing much difference between what the Colbert ads are saying, and what some of the red on red ads are saying about each other. There’s limited truth in all of it. So then the question becomes, what should we believe, and how can we tell fact from bullshit? It all seems rather odiferous to me.

    But I also struggle with why Colbert should be held accountable for his muddling, while tolerating, in some instances single large donors doing whatever they want. And while corporations are made up of people, they most certainly not people in any sense of the word. It’s really a silly argument, and only applies to the rights of corporate entities to contribute to campaigns. Is there any other aspect where we’d consider entities people? I don’t think so….

    • Since corporations, like all organizations, are collective groups of people assembled for a purpose, they have to be regarded as people. If you haven’t, do read Ken’s essay on the point, linked in the article. We give organizations the right to free speech, of due process, of equal treatment under the law, of the right to be free of illegal searches and seizures, of guaranteed representation. They are accorded the rights of people because 1) they are made up of people and 2) if they didn’t have most rights, the government could, for example, summarily ban products and advertising it happened not to like with no laws or reasons whatsoever. It could prosecute corporations and forbid them the right to have an attorney. Media corporations that didn’t handle news could be censored outright. Censorship of TV and movies could be legal. Media could be forced to run government propaganda. And, of course, since corporations ARE people, citizen’s rights, or their power to exercise them. would be infringed as well.

  12. So I just read Ken’ post on the rights of corporations. I still believe that there is a difference, but can easily accept the need for corporations to have first amendment rights and protections. However, they can’t be unlimited, and certainly not in the same vein as those afforded individuals. I think we must also draw a distinction when it comes to the use of corporate funds to exert direct influence in elections. While we all complain about lobbying, it’s not necessarily the act that gets us, but the degree! The issue problem with citizens united is not the rights of corporate entities, but the degree to which those rights can effect others. All of us, individual and corporate, have a responsibility to temper our behavior when when the legal exercise of our rights unfairly infringes on someone elses. Many of us see citizens united as a license for corporate entities to bully. Not merely exercise their so called “right to free speech” as measured by their ability to fund campaigns.

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