Jonathan Swift said that, for the satirist, “Vanity is the mark of humility rather than pride.” So it goes with Colbert’s Super PAC campaign, an uncomfortably invasive political commentary under the guise of egomaniacal humor. Just look at the most recent Twitter feeds: “Just got a Super PAC-Man Machine for the Super PAC break room. Please make all future donations in quarters.” Or his own media releases: “Stephen Colbert Wins Democracy! Kingmaker Pundit Regains Super PAC, Files Financial Report, Takes Nap”. Or the slogans: “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” Or his treasurer’s memo adjoining his F.E.C. forms: “Stephen Colbert, President of ABTT, has asked that I quote him as saying, ”Yeah! How you like me now, F.E.C? I’m rolling seven digits deep! I got 99 problems but a non-connected independent-expenditure only committee ain’t one!”” With the Super PAC revenues, Colbert expressly communicated that he will use the funds for “normal administrative expenses, including but not limited to, luxury hotel stays, private jet travel, and PAC mementos from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.”
In January of this year, Colbert announced his plans to run for President of the United States of South Carolina. When his lawyer warned him on air that he could not run for President (of the United States of South Carolina) and still be president of his Super PAC, he signed the Super PAC over to colleague Jon Stewart, and renamed it the “Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC”. After this legal block had been avoided, Colbert began his attack ads, one of which declared that Mitt Romney was a serial killer, another that demonstrated why Corn-Porn meant going all the way, and why going all the way meant voting for Rick Parry (not Rick Perry). Another Colbert Super PAC attack ad attacks, um, Colbert, wherein Samuel L. Jackson complains about Super PAC nonsense… on a Super PAC-sponsored ad.
Like all of Colbert’s stunts, it’s a hyperbolic example from behind a mask. It’s systematic hypocrisy–and it understandably drives people nuts. He’ll call Romney a serial killer, but he’ll also point out that, in the span of 12 hours, Obama’s opinion on the existence of Super PAC’s did a 180. But it’s precisely this hyperbole and humor that allows viewers to still engage in political problems without feeling utterly dejected and apathetic. By being a hypocrite, he sheds light on the hypocrisy of the politicos. Doing so from behind the mask of a politico, Colbert’s analysis becomes a relatively universalizing–and most importantly, humorous–dissection of what has become a very hard pill to swallow for many Americans. By using caricature, we are relieved, we feel less alone. By engaging an inner-ring that, for most Americans, feels very important but also very scary, and to jump into such a shark tank with sarcastic memos, confusingly side-less attack ads, not to mention an impressively well-planned, tactically brilliant entrance into the hoops and lassos of the political diorama–all with a Huckabee-meets-Kenevil American mien–Colbert confronts the hard truths by parroting them, and by parroting them, provides a paradoxical sense of relief and comfort.
Colbert walks the tenuous line between what he represents and what his representation bears out to us. It can only always be masterfully done because, in the moment that the mask slips from his face, the satirist becomes a human again. He has motive and agenda. On the other hand, if the caricature becomes too extreme and Colbert (silent t) is no longer anything like a political pundit at all, it relates to nothing, and is seen as slapstick untruth.
By walking this tenuous line, he becomes a sort of sacrifice, he enters a world we know very well but cannot speak to; in short, Colbert-in-character enters the Law on our behalf, quite literally. By embodying the very hypocrisy we see on television, by replicating the pundit-performance we see every night on the news, he imputes on himself the hypocrisy we all hate. And, the funny thing is, it’s a humble move that allows us to honestly confront (and laugh at) what’s going on. By way of farce–becoming the jester, the clown–honesty and humility re-enter a sphere where both are near impossible to find.