Most politicians are as likely to pass up free TV face time before an election as they would be to refuse a campaign check.
Then again, there’s a price to be paid for looking stupid.
That’s what members of Congress have learned recently about “Better Know a District,” a sarcastic weekly skit that is part of “The Colbert Report,” a nightly half-hour on Viacom Inc.'s Comedy Central network.
Hosted by comedian Stephen Colbert, the year-old program is a spinoff of the cable channel’s wildly popular “The Daily Show Starring Jon Stewart” and one of an increasing number of political humor shows on cable that are drawing the young viewers whom advertisers covet.
Politicians covet them too for their votes. So, many lawmakers initially played along with the segments in which Colbert interviews a member of the House of Representatives, with few checks and balances on his proclivity to make fools of them.
But after a couple of House members stumbled badly on the show, some incumbents decided that the dumbest thing to do with Colbert’s offer of free TV exposure was to take it.
“I watch it all the time,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), “and I think, ‘Why would anybody go on there?’ ”
With polls showing that the balance of power in Congress could shift from Republican to Democrat in next month’s elections, few incumbents are in the mood to take chances. Indeed, it’s been two months since a current member has appeared.
One who did appear, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), discovered the pitfalls when Colbert asked him about a bill he co-sponsored requiring that the Ten Commandments be displayed in the U.S. Capitol.
“What are the Ten Commandments?” Colbert asked matter-of-factly.
“What are all of them?” Westmoreland said, taken aback. “You want me to name them all?”
The June segment showed Westmoreland struggling to name just three. Westmoreland actually named seven, said his press secretary, Brian Robinson. And the remaining ones, he added, were somewhat obscure.
A Bible Belt conservative, the embarrassed Westmoreland has been trying to live down his Commandments performance. No Republican has appeared since.
Negative phone calls from around the country poured in to Westmoreland’s office, mostly from liberals charging hypocrisy, Robinson said. Several clips of the segment are posted on the YouTube website, and Westmoreland’s Democratic opponent, Mike McGraw, put the video on his campaign website.
“It’s a great thing to do if all Americans had a sense of humor,” Robinson said of a Colbert appearance. “Unfortunately, some don’t get the joke.”
What really got the attention of House members was the experience of Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). Colbert told him he was free to make even the most outrageous statements because he was running for reelection unopposed. Then Colbert coaxed Wexler into a spoof declaration that he enjoyed cocaine and prostitutes because “it’s a fun thing to do.”
Several media outlets trumpeted Wexler’s comments without making it clear that he was only answering Colbert’s fill-in-the-blank questions.
“I’m going to try to keep my day job and not go into comedy,” Wexler said, although he noted that the reaction from his constituents was overwhelmingly positive.
Wexler’s gaffe, following Westmoreland’s trouble, has made some legislators gun-shy about facing Colbert with elections approaching. Colbert and the show’s staff have declined media interviews about the segments since the Wexler episode.
But ignoring Colbert has its own perils.
When Rep. Sue W. Kelly (R-N.Y.) declined to appear for the segment that aired Thursday night, Colbert invited her Democratic opponent, John Hall.
“I oppose everything that you stand for,” Colbert said, “but you were willing to talk to me. So let’s move your numbers right here. Let’s smear your opponent.”
Hall picked from a deck of “smear cards” fanned by Colbert.
“My opponent smokes marijuana,” Hall said blankly.
“That’s a bold accusation,” the host responded. “It’s out there now that Sue Kelly smokes pot.”
Ever since Richard Nixon delivered the “Sock it to me” punch line on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” during the 1968 presidential campaign, politicians have sought to use comedy shows to prove they aren’t the stiffs they seem to be. Gerald Ford taped two brief lines from the White House for a 1976 episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
Bill Clinton defused criticism over a painfully long speech at the 1988 Democratic convention by letting “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson place an hourglass in front of him during an interview. Four years later, Clinton scored points in his 1992 presidential campaign by playing the saxophone on comic Arsenio Hall’s talk show.
But Colbert’s series is different.
Instead of high-profile presidential wannabes, it features relatively anonymous House members. The interviews are taped in the lawmaker’s office, so there’s no studio audience to chastise a hostile questioner. And the approximately five-minute segments are culled from sessions as long as 2 1/2 hours -- plenty of time for even an experienced politician to say or do something to make a press secretary cringe.
Over the last year, “Better Know a District” has become the comedic buzz of Capitol Hill. Colbert bills it as a “434-part series” -- he’s banned the San Diego-area district represented by his “friend,” convicted felon Randy “Duke” Cunningham, because constituents didn’t notice his “cry for help.”
Congressional staffers e-mail video clips, critiquing each performance. Speculating about who will appear next -- and how foolish they’ll look -- has become nearly as popular as handicapping which party will control the House after November’s election.
Looking foolish is usually a good bet.
Each segment begins with a short send-up of the representative’s district. Colbert introduced the district of Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) “Entertainment Tonight"-style. He plugged the pastrami sandwiches at Langer’s deli with numerous references to Tom Cruise movies and asked in a quiz which hunk -- George Clooney, Antonio Banderas or Becerra -- was the district’s congressman.
Colbert’s shtick lampoons blustery conservative cable TV commentators such as Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. He remains in character when he sits down with members of Congress, firing off provocative or just plain stupid questions. Politicians often are flummoxed.
“Is it safe to say you’re an America-hating terrorist lover hiding behind a stupid bow tie?” he asked Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).
“Do you have to take your toupee off when you go through security?” Colbert asked Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.).
“Have you ever seen a naked woman?” he asked Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).
Paul Lewis, a Boston College professor who has studied humor and politics, said the series was just “a trap” for politicians.
“When they go on the show,” he said, “they often seem like buffoons.”
But for the 30 House members who have appeared over the last year, the risk of facing down Colbert has a potential reward -- demonstrating a sense of humor and appealing to young people, who make up a large chunk of the 2 million people who watch each episode.
Many like to play along. Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma) arm-wrestled Colbert. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) portrayed “Judge Tubbs” in a parody of TV court shows. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) let Colbert comb his mustache.
“We don’t want to be stuffed shirts only doing dry subjects in a dull format,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who was the first House member Colbert profiled and had urged colleagues to appear. “We need to make politics interesting and fun to people any chance we get.”
Becerra, who is running unopposed, decided Colbert was a risk worth taking. Appearing in August, Becerra was the last incumbent to make that calculation. But it was worth it, Becerra said, noting that it brought attention to his bill to create a national museum for American Latino culture and history.
Well, attention of a sort.
“Why would you want to take America’s great art and translate it into Spanish?” Colbert asked Becerra in his Capitol Hill office. “Is this what you want to see?”
Colbert held up a series of pictures. In “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the Father of Our Country wore a sombrero, and a pinata replaced the American flag. “Whistler’s Mother” rocked under a fruit-basket hat a la Carmen Miranda. Colombian coffee pitchman Juan Valdez and his trusty mule were seen nosing into “American Gothic.”
“That’s very clever,” Becerra responded, trying not to laugh.
He and others said the key to avoiding political damage was knowing when to stop playing along. “In our business, we’re allowed to be funny,” Kingston said, “but not real funny.”
Sherman participated in a PG-rated spoof of a pornographic movie involving Colbert and a pizza deliveryman, a nod to his district being in the San Fernando Valley, home to the nation’s adult film industry. But Sherman said he turned down several requests from Colbert to do potentially embarrassing things in the spoof, titled “Fresh Hot Slice.”
In the end, Sherman was shown simply watching Colbert and the deliveryman indulge in some sexually suggestive pizza eating.
“I ate no pizza,” Sherman said. “That’s not because Colbert didn’t want me to eat some pizza.”
Democratic consultant Jenny Backus said Colbert offered lawmakers an excellent opportunity to broaden their appeal, just not in the home stretch of the campaign.
“There will always be people in the House trying to stick out of the crowd ... but right now is not the season to be doing that,” she said, noting that a series of congressional scandals have many voters in a less-than-jovial mood. “In this climate, it’s must-not-do TV.”