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The Book on Stephen Colbert

As Colbert prepares to cross picket lines and return to the airwaves, enjoying his book just got harder

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The problem with parodying pop culture, of course, is that pop culture keeps upping the ante. Yesterday's Daily Show spoof becomes today's lead segment on Good Morning America.

For example: Britney Spears' pregnant 16-year-old sister was on the TV morning "news," again today, prompting the host and an in-house psychologist to fret over how society is sexualizing girls. As they voiced their anguish, viewers were treated to footage of Jamie Lynn herself -- standing outside a red-carpet event as a camera panned, lingeringly, over her entire body.

Really, what's left to spoof? It's as if a newspaper simply decided to cull the actual news and replace it with a bunch of joke headlines written by someone else. (See "TKTKTKTK," page TKTK) Maybe the only media professionals still taking their jobs seriously are self-important blowhards like Fox's Bill O'Reilly.

If so, it's time to start mocking them too.

That's the approach Daily Show alumnus Stephen Colbert has taken in his TV show, The Colbert Report, and in his new book, I Am America (And So Can You!). The book, like the show, riffs on the bloviating, self-important output of O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Michael Savage and others. And as with their books, Colbert's is part biography, part self-help book and part political screed. The difference, though, is that I'm almost positive Colbert set out to be funny. With the others guys, I'm not so sure.

Colbert sets the tone right in the preface: "What I have dictated is nothing less than a Constitution for the Colbert Nation," he proclaims. "And like our Founding Fathers, I hold my Truths to be self-evident, which is why I did absolutely no research."

The material that follows will be familiar to fans of his show, though even they will likely laugh out loud at it while riding the bus:

On the danger of education: "Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz was a well-adjusted member of society until his neighbor's dog started filling his head with a bunch of New Ideas."

On poverty: "You can always pull yourself up by your bootstraps or turn the lemons life has given you into lemonade. Clearly, America has no shortage of metaphorical opportunities for the poor."

On the power of art: "The effects of live theater are way harder to shake off than movies. It's frighteningly intimate and, worst of all, you've got no control. It's like breaking up with a girl in person."

It's all funny stuff. But as we've seen, irony has a dangerous tendency to spread. After I read I Am America, I took another look at the works of O'Reilly and Co. ... and found them much more entertaining this time around.

Sometimes, it's hard to tell which writer you're actually reading. Take this passage:

"If you are going to drink a quart of bourbon a day or smoke crack, this book is not going to help you. [In fact] you've probably stolen this book. Give it back. Now."

Is this O'Reilly being serious? O'Reilly trying to be funny? Or is it Colbert making fun of O'Reilly trying to be funny, under the guise of being serious?

Actually, it's taken from O'Reilly's book Who's Looking Out For You? (Though God only knows whether this passage is his idea of a joke.) But all of this raises other questions: If the goal is to make a mockery of right-wing talking heads, who does a better job: Colbert, or the talking heads themselves?

And after you parody something for so long, is there a danger that you'll end up playing the part too closely?

Because if the right-wingers sound a lot like Colbert, Colbert has arguably begun acting a bit like the right-wingers. As this issue was going to press, Colbert and the Daily Show's Jon Stewart announced plans to cross a picket line to work on their shows.

For nearly two months, the Writers Guild of America -- of which both Stewart and Colbert are members -- has been on strike, seeking a larger share of the profits that studios earn online and elsewhere. But Stewart and Colbert have now joined other talk-show hosts, like Jay Leno and David Letterman, in planning to return to the airwaves with the writers still on strike.

It's not clear how the shows will be formatted. Colbert and Stewart may try to honor the strike by removing scripted portions of the show (like Colbert's popular "The Word" segment). The broadcasts would rely almost exclusively on interviews instead. In a statement, Colbert and Stewart said that they would feel "ambivalence" about returning on their own -- but that "without our writers we are unable to express something as nuanced as ambivalence."

That's cute, but it's unlikely to silence those who cry "scab," and think the two men should resist Comedy Central's demands that they return to work. Stewart especially has been supportive of the writers ... but suddenly, it's not quite so funny that Colbert ran for president (briefly) as a Republican this year.

In the meantime, where to go for a right-wing parody that doesn't make you feel conflicted, for an outsized on-air persona you can hate without reservation? Your best bet is Michael Savage. I read Savage's book, The Enemy Within, a few years back, and I don't think Colbert quite matches up as a satire.

In one passage, Savage likens liberals to lions who attack a water buffalo by "ripp[ing] out her anus and nose." In another, he compares homosexuality's influence on the culture to old people farting in elevators. (So ... does he think flatulent old people shouldn't be allowed to marry? Don't be too sure he doesn't!)

Even as the writer's strike sidelined Colbert's TV show, Savage was notifying his viewers that, "By and large, 90 percent of the people on the Nobel [Prize] Committee are into child pornography and molestation, according to the latest scientific studies."

If Colbert pulled something like that, everyone in the audience would know he was kidding. Savage, though, makes you think he just might be serious. Which is, of course, the funniest part of all. I think.

But in either case, at least you don't have to worry about Michael Savage crossing a picket line next month.

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