Prominent Washington election lawyer Trevor Potter, who served as chief counsel to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, is trying to join his client in straddling the line between yuks and genuine legal questions. On one day, Potter filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to help clarify Viacom's legal responsibilities. On another, he appeared on Colbert's show to loft softballs for easy punch lines.
"Can you name anyone who has gone to jail for breaking the law with their PAC?" Colbert asked Potter on one recent episode.
"Not a person," Potter replied.
"Ah," Colbert shot back. "That's my kind of law!"
Those on both sides of the debate have seen something of value come from Colbert's tongue-in-cheek routine.
"I think he's trying to use his modus operandi to make a very serious point," said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate for campaign finance reform. "Namely, that the Citizens United decision has created real and fundamental problems for the country."
Bradley Smith, a campaign law expert who has endorsed the court's ruling, said Colbert may be mocking the decision, but also inadvertently showing that, even for someone with an enormous megaphone, trying to work within the confines of government restriction has been ungainly and challenging.
"I think he's missing the point," Smith said. "As a person with his own TV show, he has this great platform, and yet he's still encountering obstacles."
Scott Thomas, a former FEC commissioner, said his former FEC colleagues have a challenge on their hands. Some aspects of Colbert's filing are clearly going to be tough to take seriously. But there are implications, he said, for other political figures who make partisan appeals on television news shows.
"Depending on how the FEC rules, this could turn into a green light for Fox or MSNBC to start to allow personalities to actively solicit donations on their shows," Thomas said.