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Book Notes

January 12, 2012

Book Notes: Biography captures the real Stephen Colbert

It would be hard to find a comedian as unique as Stephen Colbert. As the host of “The Colbert Report”  on Comedy Central he hasmanaged to leave his mark on the nation’s consciousness in both a serious and humorous sort of way. His unusual wit has allowed him to become American icon. It would be difficult to find another entertainer quite like him.

Who else would have the guts to make fun of a president sitting on the same dais at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner? And actually manage to do it without going over the top? The only ones who ended up offended were the correspondents because they took the brunt of his jokes. The non-press loved his routine.

What other comedian could appeal so easily to politicians at opposite ends of the spectrum? Colbert plays a caricature of himself, a narrow-minded, self-serving conservative who is actually socially liberal in real life.

Any politician with a sense of humor is happy to appear with him. 2008 Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee even asked him to be his running mate.

What other liberal comedian could have a U.S. military that absolutely adores him?

It was Colbert who felt badly about the “forgotten” troops in Iraq and arranged to have his show taped there for a week. Not only did he have the top military brass appear as guests on his show, but he arranged to have President Obama on a live satellite feed order him to have a military haircut.

Witnessing Colbert’s brand of humor is something to behold. It’s almost hard to describe. His shtick demands the combination of a quick wit, a keen intelligence, and the ability to keep a straight face. With his guests he has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of history and current events. He has a way of keeping them honest without embarrassing them. It’s little wonder that even the most controversial figures will make repeat visits on his show.

How Colbert became an American icon is intimately captured in Lisa Rogak’s new biography of him, “And Nothing But the Truthiness: The Rise (and Further Rise) of Stephen Colbert.” Although he came from a very large and loving family he had to overcome tragedy and career failures before achieving success. His greatest attribute has been to always stay grounded. Colbert has maintained a sense of humility and treated his peers and underlings with respect. It’s hard to find anyone who has a bad word to say about him.

His cleverness and popularity has led to some innovative ideas on his show. He has a regular segment called “Better Know a District” where he tapes interviews with congressmen and women from around the country. It has  produced some of the funniestmoments on his show, especially if the representatives aren’t sure if he’s serious or not.

When he heard the government of Hungary was having a naming contest for a new bridge over the Danube River he mobilized his viewers to bombard the website with so many votes for himself that he won. The Hungarian government changed the rules midstream to avoid giving the bridge his name, but tried to make amends by having the Hungarian ambassador to the United States appear on his show.

The same thing happened when NASA sponsored a contest to name a new module on the International Space Station. They also nixed the Colbert name on a technicality although it did lead to his “training” by NASA as an astronaut.

Sometimes his brainstorms have a positive effect. Colbert came to the rescue of the 2010 U.S. Olympic speed skating team after their sponsoring bank went bankrupt, volunteering to have Colbert Nation (i.e., his viewers) sponsor the team through donations. His appeal netted the $300,000 needed to make up the shortfall. Other inspirations have raised money for many different charities, mainly in public education.

Stephen Colbert is an enigma as well as an icon. His arrogant, blowhard alter-ego has a way of appealing to the masses, but his true persona he is one of a humble guy who keeps his ego in check. After experiencing “And Nothing But the Truthiness” you  realize that Colbert’s successis well deserved and couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

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Book Notes
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