The Truthiness Teller

We live in a dangerous world. Fortunately, we've got Stephen Colbert fighting on our side. Colbert defends America when lesser men cut and run. Got a problem with White House wiretapping? He doesn't. "This is a war against secret enemies that may not end," Colbert has told the world. "Don't we need secret powers that have no limit?" Doubts about Iraq? "Doesn't taking out Saddam feel right?" he asks. When Colbert criticizes something like the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, it's not the policy he dislikes--it's the missed opportunity. "It's time to bring torture back to this side of the pond and put Americans back to work," he says. The biggest threat facing America now, Colbert says, isn't Iraq or Al Qaeda, or even Simon Cowell. It's the Associated Press.

What earned Colbert's ire was an AP story last month about the American Dialect Society's "word of the year." The word is "truthiness," which, if you want to get technical, isn't a word at all. But by now you've probably figured out that Colbert isn't exactly for real, either. He's the host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," a takeoff of talk-show blowhards like Bill O'Reilly and Joe Scarborough. When the "Report" debuted last October, Colbert made clear that his mantra would be truthiness, a devotion to information that he wishes were true even if it's not. "I'm not a fan of facts," he intoned. "You see, facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are." The Dialect Society was impressed enough to honor "truthiness"--they're still looking for those WMD, too--despite its obviously comedic derivation. But when the AP ran a story about the award, it didn't mention Colbert. "It's like Shakespeare still being alive and not asking him what 'Hamlet' is about," fumed Colbert, who promptly put out an APB on the AP. So the AP ran a story about Colbert's angry reaction to its omission, too. Not bad coverage for a phony news anchor.

Then everything got really postmodern. In the past month, truthiness--a fake word by a fake newsman--hit the big time. It became part of the discussion about James Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," after Oprah Winfrey told Larry King the book "still resonates with me" even though Frey invented some of it. (She later changed her mind, but did that stop people from buying the book?) New York Times columnist Frank Rich used truthiness to explain everything from the pumped-up biography of Judge Samuel Alito to the phoniness of Nick and Jessica's made-for-MTV love affair. "What matters most now is whether a story can be sold as truth, preferably on television," Rich wrote, adding, "We live in the age of truthiness."

And Colbert--a man who once declared, "Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you"--has become the age's semiofficial pundit. A congressman from Georgia asked him to be his guest at the State of the Union address. (He declined.) Someone at the Pentagon just invited him to lunch. (Ditto.) That's heady stuff for a guy whose show reaches just 1.1 million or so viewers a night--and stuff's about to get even headier. In April, Colbert will perform at the White House correspondents' dinner, where he'll stand next to--and poke fun at--the president himself. "I'm so excited," Colbert says, "I'm going to levitate." Which is exactly what you'd expect from someone filled with hot air.

"The Colbert Report" is a spinoff from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," where Colbert spent six years perfecting what he calls a "well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-class idiot." "The Colbert Report"-- he pronounces his name like it's French (col-BEAR), so he naturally does the same thing with "Report" (re-POR)--covers much the same territory as its source. Both shows dissect the idiocy and hypocrisy of politicians and the media, and both do it with eyebrows cocked clear to the top of their heads. The difference is that, with the Colbert character at its center, the "Report" is much more freewheeling and silly. The show's signature segment is called "The Word" --that slash through the "o" is a metaphor for Colbert's penchant for butchering words when he really thinks he's celebrating them. This is where "truthiness" was born, but Colbert has also fixated on "bacchanalia," "wham-o" and "double-stick tape," which allowed him to discourse on the merits of the Miss America pageant and the manner in which contestants keep their bikinis in place. It's all a takeoff of O'Reilly's "Talking Points" segment, and it's captioned like O'Reilly's too. Only Colbert's captions often mock him. "I don't trust books. They're all fact and no heart," he said once, while the caption read: "Heart good, head bad." Good stuff.

For the most part. Where "The Daily Show" carves its humor with the precision of a paring knife, the "Report" whacks at its topics with the blunt end of a briefcase. The jokes sometimes feel predictable, as do the Colbert character's stentorian right-wing proclamations. Despite the popularity of "The Word," the best part of the show is usually Colbert's interview. He's a brilliant ad-libber--he spent his early years doing improv theater--with an encyclopedic mind. "He'd be comfortable not only in any discipline, but in any era," says Jon Stewart. "If you transplanted him to the 1600s and suddenly he was involved in the medieval arts, or even dentistry, he would be fine. I consider him, oddly enough, like the Internet." He's being funny, of course, but Colbert can access the most offbeat information in a nanosecond. When he interviewed Colorado Rep. Mark Udall, Colbert asked him about his three failed attempts to climb Mount Everest. Colbert: "Don't take this the wrong way, but doesn't that make you a quitter?" Udall: "I don't think the Q word applies to me. Maybe the L word." Colbert, seriously and instantly: "You do know the L word is 'lesbian'."

Almost all the politicians who go on the show get at least mildly ridiculed. The funny thing is, they almost all claim to love it. The audience is young and hip, something few congressmen can say about themselves. Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston even circulated a memo to fellow GOP members urging them to go on the show, even though Kingston spent most of his "Colbert" interview looking shellshocked. Kingston, who is white, was raised partly in Ethiopia, and Colbert insisted on mining his pain as an "African-American." "This is a good opportunity to help provide a different perspective on who Republicans are," Kingston wrote in his memo. "Get in the ring and show 'em that Republicans have a sense of humor, too."

One reason Colbert gets away with being outrageous is that, unlike, say, Ali G, he's not looking to humiliate anyone. Colbert always comes off looking like the biggest buffoon. "The key to the whole thing is Stephen wearing the character loosely and showing the inherent decency of the man underneath," says Stewart, who is also an executive producer of Colbert's show. "If you created a character where the audience had to sit back and go, 'Is this man a monster?' you would lose interest." Even Colbert's most obvious targets don't mind being mocked. "He does it without being mean-spirited, which is a refreshing change," says Fox News anchor O'Reilly. "Ninety percent of them are just vicious and they use their platform to injure people, but it doesn't seem that Colbert does that." Does he see himself in Colbert's character? "Yeah, sure," O'Reilly says. "The formula of his program is, they watch the 'Factor' and they seize upon certain themes that work for him. He ought to be sending me a check every week, 'cause we're basically the research for his writers. I feel it's a compliment."

Colbert the character will be ecstatic to hear that O'Reilly approves of him. "I think O'Reilly could be so evolved, he's one of the X-Men," he once said. But what about Colbert the man? Hard to say. His character is clearly a parody of God-fearing, pro-business, Bush-loving Republicans--he keeps a photo of Harriet Miers behind his C-shaped anchor desk--so you'd guess that Colbert himself is a Democrat. But there are some less partisan folks in his character, too. "I loved Aaron Brown when he was on the air because he had a folksy love of language where he would ruminate the news at you, which I miss," says Colbert. "And Anderson Cooper, 'cause he's so sexy, you know. He's so crisp." Colbert guards his personal views closely, and if you watch the show carefully you'll see subtle digs at everyone on the political-media map. "I'm not entirely a commie," he says. "I don't mind putting things in that might be perceived as conservative that I actually believe, but I don't know if the audience needs to know which of them I believe." Despite the fact that politics is a primary inspiration and target, Colbert isn't interested in being political. "People are constantly saying, 'How's it feel to have such an impact?' " he says. "I just want to be funny. I'm a comedian, not a political thinker. We're changing the world one factual error at a time."

Colbert, 41, hardly acts like a wanna-be power player. He keeps one of his "Daily Show" Emmys in his office, but he hasn't bothered to attach the plaque with his name on it. Much more precious are his "Lord of the Rings" pinball machine and his photograph of Viggo Mortensen, etched in chocolate. "It's all edible--it's fantastic," he says. "I'm a huge, huge geek. I played Dungeons and Dragons the first week it came out." Where Colbert the news anchor wears designer suits and monogrammed cuff links, Colbert the comic shows up at work in khakis and a golf shirt. He married a woman from his hometown in South Carolina and goes to Catholic church every Sunday--for kicks, he once started an interview speaking in Latin. He's also got three kids he dotes on. He won't let them watch his show. "I say things in a very flat manner that I don't believe, and I don't want them to perceive Daddy as insincere," he says. "I basically tell them I'm professionally ridiculous." At one point while he's preparing for that evening's interview, his assistant comes in and says that Conan O'Brien wants him on his show. OK, says Colbert, but only if it doesn't conflict with taking his son to swim practice. "There couldn't be a huger difference between the character Stephen and the real Stephen," says Richard Dahm, one of the "Report" head writers. "The real Stephen is an amazing guy. The character Stephen--well, I wouldn't want to be working for him."

That's not to say that Colbert takes comedy lightly. He's been showing off since he was a kid, which is probably an unavoidable byproduct of being the youngest of 11. "I wasn't a very good storyteller. I overheard my mom once saying to my brothers and sisters, 'You listen to his stories,' because they were saying how boring they were," Colbert says. "And to this day I sort of feel like if I'm doing well with an audience, then Mom's gotten to them and said, 'You listen to him'." At first, Colbert wanted to be a serious actor--"Not play Hamlet, be Hamlet. I wore a lot of black," he says--but when he went to study in Chicago, he fell into improv comedy. "I made him laugh onstage once, and he was so mad at me," says Amy Sedaris, who later costarred with him in the sitcom "Strangers With Candy." "He went and closed himself in a closet or a bathroom. He was serious and seemed a little aloof, but once we broke him onstage, he just got sillier and a lot more fun."

The irony is that now that he's a famous comic, people are taking him seriously. Naturally, the "Colbert" folks are amused and bemused by the "truthiness" phenomenon. "You can never tell when a song or a word or whatever will become of a particular moment. You know, like, why the macarena?" says executive producer Ben Karlin. For those interested in the historical record, Colbert coined the T word moments before he went on the air for his first show; no one on staff had any idea what great things it would achieve.

Times columnist Rich says that truthiness as a social condition isn't new--it was Bill Clinton who tried to parse the definition of "is." "But it's not just presidents of the United States who do it," says Rich. "It's a whole media culture." Remember when the news was filled with stories of sharks gone wild and the shocking rise in childabductions? That was cable-news truthiness--good stories, but not true ones. "If I had to date it from a single point, it was in the mid-1990s, when you simultaneously had the rise of the cable-news networks, the rise of the Internet, the rise of networks covering finance and Court TV--this whole apparatus that's in place now," says Rich. "It's harmless if the stories are trivial, like if people want to believe that 'Survivor' really is about life-and-death survival. Where it becomes a problem is when it deals with stuff that affects people's welfare, or the welfare of the country. It does damage to sell a country on a war based not just on faulty intelligence but the kind of hyping that went on with the rest of it."

Some people do take this stuff very seriously. Fortunately, Colbert isn't one of them. Like all the other news organizations, the "Report" has already moved on from the truthiness debate to another issue of national importance: the Oscars. For one thing, Colbert thinks the Academy should ditch Stewart as the host in favor of Bob Hope. "Just think of the joy this will bring television viewers worldwide," he said. Colbert is also angry about a major nomination snub. How could the Academy overlook Martin Lawrence in "Big Momma's House 2"? "Great actors take great risks," he said. "They're willing to sacrifice their movie-star looks to disappear into a role. Think of De Niro in 'Raging Bull.' Nicole Kidman in 'The Hours.' Charlize Theron in 'Monster.' Martin Lawrence gets snubbed when he gains 200 pounds and gets a sex-change operation?"

If the Oscars seem rather trivial given the swaggering anchor's pretensions, get over it. He makes the agenda; the agenda does not make him. "It really doesn't matter what the news is, because we set our own news cycle," Colbert says. "We are the news cycle." Ain't that the truthiness.

Copyright 2006 Newsweek: not for distribution outside of Newsweek Inc.

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