Blogging Colbert

So I was on the Colbert Report, hosted by Stephen Colbert at Comedy Central, on Wednesday night, to promote my new book, Engaging the Muslim World.

The clip is up at the Colbert site now

Colbert has four Emmys for his comedy writing on the show, and also just won a Producers Guild Award for Television Producer of the Year Award in Live Entertainment/Competition (i.e. he has the esteem of his peers). A talented comedy writer who worked on the Saturday Night Live “Saturday TV Funhouse” cartoons (and sometimes provided voices), and then as a writer and occasional “correspondent” on the Daily Show, like Tina Fey he made the move to performance (and like her his greatest success came in parodying the political Right). To be sure, he did it first.

Colbert’s persona as a pompous, right-wing news anchor has a long genealogy in television comedy. One thinks of Ted Knight’s Ted Baxter character on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Colbert’s special genius lay in recognizing the comedic potential of skewering the Fox Cable News anchors and commentators, the rightwing bullyboys such as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. That he is a liberal playing a conservative to a young liberal audience introduces a hall-of-mirrors-like complexity into the comedy.

So after they set me, my wife and my editor and some staffers from Palgrave Macmillan up in the green room in a nondescript building on the edges of Manhattan’s Theater District, the Colbert crew kindly gave me a tour of the studio (I like studios, and sort of collect visits to them). I impudently asked if I could sit at Mr. Colbert’s anchor desk, and the staff kindly said yes:

As I was getting behind the desk I almost tripped on something, and looked down to find a . . . pitchfork. Gee, I thought, this will be a tough interview.

But it turns out that the pitchfork was meant for another purpose, Colbert’s populist proposal to lead the peasants with torches to the AIG headquarters (i.e. the very thing Rush Limbaugh was inveighing against). Colbert’s persona is sometimes more populist than merely conservative.

In our interview, Colbert effectively skewered the Islamophobic schticks of rightwing American media, a la Glenn Beck and other hatemongers. I do a lot of radio and am sometimes on with a shock jock interviewer. In fact, on Wednesday morning I had the misfortune to encounter Chicago radio personality Mancow Muller in a telephone interview on my book. At one point he started shouting, as I remember, “isn’t it time to just start killing them?” and wanted to justify killing and half-starving Gazan children for the sins of Hamas. I don’t know if he believes this crap or he is not all there, but his employer, Talk Radio Network, appears to be among the biggest hatemongers in the United States. A responsible American public would mount advertiser boycotts of this sewage. I’m all for free speech in media and love listening to responsible conservative voices such as those in The American Conservative. But just shouting that it is time to start killing people is sick and actually may eventually get someone killed.

Anyway, after my distasteful encounter earlier that day, I found Colbert’s parody of such individuals positively hilarious.

Interestingly, Colbert revealed that he is taking the show to the Persian Gulf, for a direct encounter with the Muslim world, himself. He was hoping, he said, for an opulent experience in Dubai. I had the sad duty of informing him that Dubai isn’t what it was before the real estate collapse.

The Colbert Report generously gave me a bag full of goodies. These included a Colbert Report should bag (which I will treasure), various flavored waters and snacks, a cosmetic kit that my wife thought well of, and a gift card that allows me to forward $100 to help public schools via DonorsChoose.org which was the best gift of all.

After the show was over, my wife and I had a very nice celebration dinner at Victor’s Cuban Cafe in the Theater District, among my favorites in New York. Afterwards, we wanted to go back to the hotel and catch the show, which airs at 11:30 pm ET. But it then occurred to me that our hotel’s basic cable package did not include Comedy Central. So we asked the manager at Victor’s if we could watch it at the bar as they were closing up, and they kindly agreed. The manager had stories about visits to the restaurant of J-Lo, David Letterman, and other celebrities.

It was a wonderful experience to be on the Colbert Report. Unlike some academics, I watch a lot of television, and don’t think you can understand American society if you don’t. I really think that the Comedy Bloc from 11-12 ET on Comedy Central, of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, is a little space of sanity and reality in American public life. Comedy, satire and parody allow these two very intelligent and perceptive gentlemen to be brutally frank about the foibles of American society. To any extent I could join in that enterprise, it was my privilege.


Engaging the Muslim World

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