Colbert for President: Is He Kidding?

Very funny, fellow comics say, but could the joke get taken too far?


Oct. 19, 2007 — -- Announcing Tuesday his decision to run for president, Stephen Colbert is seemingly of the "I laugh at them but will join them regardless" school of thought.

Despite that his chances of being -- or even wanting to be -- elected are slimmer than a Hollywood starlet's waistline, Colbert's decision has got everybody talking. The question is, is this a joke that's perhaps going too far for the Comedy Central funny man?

Joe Saltzman, a former senior producer for Entertainment Tonight, with four Emmy's to his name, thinks not.

"It's a funny gag and hikes up his comedy to the next level," Saltzman said. "Politics is already comedic, with carefully scripted answers. And with Colbert on the inside, he can expose how his opponents are contradicting themselves with clips of what they said then and what they're saying now."

On its face, it may seem like one big lark, but the fact of the matter is, Colbert has contacted both the Republican and Democratic parties in South Carolina.

Joe Werner of the South Carolina Democratic Party told ABC News that Colbert's people actually contacted the party weeks ago to check whether his application would be viable.

With this in mind, it seems that this is one joke Colbert is not going to let go of anytime soon. And the risk with any joke is people taking it the wrong way.

"When I'm up on stage and do a joke, half the people interpret it one way and half of them interpret it the way I want them to," said Maria Bamford, a comic who regularly appears on Comedy Central. "The character you play can seem more real than you, and it's amazing how many people buy into it."

The electorate buying into the idea of Colbert as a candidate could be one way that this particular joke turns sour.

"While it's not much of a possibility, if Colbert takes votes from people interested in the job, than that could become troublesome," Bamford said.

Making sure to not get ahead of herself, Bamford quickly added, "Overall, it's fine and, even if it might be a problem if he does well, to be honest there is a lack of sense of humor in right-wing politics. He can help out with this."

Paul Lewis, a Boston College English professor and author of "Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict," draws the comparison with Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat and Ali G skits, in which Cohen also stays in character throughout. However, Lewis points out one key difference.

"Unlike Cohen's characters, who get laughs by deceiving their interlocutors, Colbert doesn't trick the guests he interviews," Lewis said. "This explains why he has provoked less animosity, no lawsuits and mostly just laughter."

"Colbert knows it's almost impossible to take him seriously, and everyone will take this as a good-hearted joke," Lewis said.

On the slight chance that Colbert is for real, his chance of success at the polls is not. Colbert's candidacy is considered by many a self-promoting stunt, and the extension of his parody into real-life politics does not leave everyone enthused.

"It's a funny idea but makes no great statement and, to be honest, went right out of my head," said Jay Marose, a key influence on high-profile reality shows, including "The Osbournes." "Even though this idea doesn't do anything for me, the idea can't hurt someone and doesn't really have a downside."

Some go even further to allay concern that Colbert has this time taken one liberty too many and say rather than being a sign of disrespect, his candidacy may help pep up the dwindling health of American politics.

"Though it's impossible to predict its impact, it will probably broaden Colbert's act by allowing him to mock the role-playing of all the candidates, rather than just the Republicans, and could in this way generate the kind of cynicism that encourages people to believe that no one running can be trusted," Boston College's Lewis said.

A comedian aiming for the White House was a move first pioneered by Pat Paulsen almost 40 years ago. Between 1968 and 1996, Paulsen ran six times and was able to make his fight for the presidency a key part of his stand-up act. Success in politics was neither forthcoming nor desired, but Paulsen nevertheless became one of the first people to add a welcome element to politics -- tongue-in-cheek humor.

"Running for office has become so formulaic, and politicians have really lost their humor this year," public relations kingpin Howard Bragman told ABC News. "It doesn't matter that Colbert won't get many votes, as he'll bring much needed levity and pop culture."

An example of a comedian taking a joke too far may be when Andy Kaufman fought wrestling hero Jerry Lawler in the 1980s. The match outraged fight fans who took it as a mockery of their sport and a joke at their expense.

While it could be deduced from this that comedians who branch out of their comfort zone do not go down well with the cognoscenti, the fact is that Kaufman was is a very different personality to Colbert.

"Kaufman's comic persona was singularly unappealing and deliberately irritating," Lewis said. "On 'Saturday Night Live,' when he asked viewers to show their support, they voted him off the show."

It may well turn out that the nation's electorate will let Colbert have his fun. The consensus is that if Colbert keeps to his usual style, he will avoid any negative fallout from the stunt, and he may actually be the perfect fit into a world where entertainment and politics are inextricably linked.

"This is what Stephen Colbert does, and it's just his sense of humor," Saltzman said. "It's really nothing to get worked up about."

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