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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
  • Despite good reviews some movies disappoint Sometimes a popular movie can be difficult to evaluate. It may be a hit at the box office, receive great reviews, and earn multiple Oscar nominations. But what if it didn't really do it for you? How do you rip a film that clearly appeals to the masses? I faced that dilemma with one of the top grossing releases of 2013. I guess I learned that everyone has different tastes.

    August 14, 2014

  • Comparing HOF, Coop, now and then The Baseball Hall of Fame is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and it's amazing how much the Hall has grown since it first opened in 1939. An estimated 48,000 fans journeyed to Cooperstown to watch the induction ceremonies two weeks ago. The annual Hall of Fame weekend has become a major tourist attraction as floods of Hall of Famers and ex-big leaguers descend on the village to celebrate, reminisce, and sign autographs (for a fee). It's all quite a change from its humble beginnings in 1939.

    August 7, 2014

  • Biography of Neil Armstrong shines light on space program We just celebrated the 45th anniversary of the first lunar landing. We all remember Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, uttering those famous words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.â€� It was an exciting time for our country and the world. There was talk of a mission to Mars by 1980. Instead, we haven’t been to the moon since 1972 and manned space exploration has become an afterthought. What happened?

    July 31, 2014

  • Early 'blahs' sometimes hide a gem There are often films that sound rather "blah" when you first notice them and have no interest in seeing. It's usually due to the preview either being really stupid or the producers wanting to avoid giving away too much of the plot. If it's the latter category you must be careful. Sometimes there's a gem of a movie hidden behind the facade.

    July 24, 2014

  • 'Moneyball' author tackles Wall Street with 'Flash Boys' Have you ever read a book that feels like it's in a foreign language? It covers a subject you know is important and figure at some point it will all make sense. What do you do when that doesn't happen? Obviously, the easiest solution is to toss the book aside. But what if the underlying message is something you "get" and don't want to give up on? I faced that dilemma recently.

    July 17, 2014

  • MacNeil reading highlights novels Several weeks ago I had the good fortune to attend a talk by Robert MacNeil at the Guilderland Public Library. MacNeil is best known as the former co-host of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS. He retired in 1995 but has continued to write both fiction and non-fiction. His talk at Guilderland focused on two of his novels, "Burden of Desire" written in 1992, and its sequel, "Portrait of Julia," which was published last year.

    July 10, 2014

  • 'The Monuments Men' shows important history World War II continues to hold a special place in the hearts of readers and movie goers. The reasons are many but much of it can be traced to the endless number of storylines from that conflict. There is literally a treasure trove of material that keeps emerging. The latest example is the movie, “The Monuments Men.â€�

    July 3, 2014

  • Authors not afraid to think like freaks Conventional wisdom is something we automatically take for granted. It can be something as simple as assuming there is no cure for the common cold or political polls being a good indicator of who will win an election. Common assumptions of course can be wrong but we usually just accept them as fact. However, in many cases it would be much better to think "outside the box" and consider an alternative way of looking at the world.

    June 26, 2014

  • Book goes further into Armstrong's lies There hasn't been a shortage of elite athletes that have fallen from grace in recent years. Most of them have been baseball players who have been caught using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and then lying about it. Golfer Tiger Woods fell from his pedestal because of extra-marital affairs. He has yet to regain his previous aura and perhaps never will. But the loudest crash of all came from cyclist Lance Armstrong who was not only a liar and a cheat but ruined other people's lives in the process.

    June 19, 2014

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    June 12, 2014