When Stephen Colbert got a buzz cut from Gen. Raymond Odierno this week it was both the least and the most important moment in his four-night sojourn in Iraq.
The Comedy Central star gave up a thick head of hair, and shelved his beloved blow-dryer. America won’t soon forget the shtick -- Colbert forcibly shorn by the big, bald-headed general on “order” of the commander in chief, who beamed in via satellite TV to Camp Victory in Baghdad.
That scored lots of laughs and something more. It helped sidestep the presumptive war fatigue of the audience back home so Colbert could drive home a few more salient points: This war is not over. These soldiers are not home. Some of the rules (particularly the one prohibiting open homosexuals from serving their country) don’t make sense. It won’t be over any time soon.
Those messages were important enough to the comedian that he made sure everyone understood they came from the real Stephen Colbert, not just the blustery, right-wing character of the same name he portrays on the “The Colbert Report.”
“My character and I both think it’s a shame that we’re not talking about the troops anymore,” Colbert, the comedian, wrote, albeit in his role as Colbert, the guest editor of Newsweek magazine.
He’s featured on this week’s cover (this time with a faux haircut, “Iraq” carved into his scalp) and helped pick stories that also focus on the country where America has been at war for six years.
Colbert’s satire clearly, and correctly, skewers the media for losing focus, despite the presence of 130,000 troops in the still-dangerous nation. Statistics from the Tyndall Report tracking service show that all three network evening news programs broadcast a total of just 99 minutes of news on Iraq in the first five months of this year.
The media’s attention deficit had Colbert telling Gen. Odierno he had assumed the Iraq war had ended and we “had moved on to the new war between a wise Latino woman and old white men.”
Yes, television, in particular, has moved on to the Supreme Court nomination fight of Sonia Sotomayor and other cares. But the Comedy Central provocateur signaled he didn’t blame the media alone for their failed focus. He told the general (whom he compared to cartoon ogre Shrek) that Americans seemed to still “have many lingering questions about Iraq. For example: Where is Iraq?”
Colbert can tell the audience it should sit up and pay attention because he spares few (including his hosts at Newsweek, a “rudderless rag”) and speaks from a rarefied place in the media cosmos, observing us, but always one of us.
Russell Peterson, author of “Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke,” said this “layer of ironic remove” allows the personality “a lot of room to maneuver.”
“He can criticize the government and the military while pressing all the patriotic buttons,” said Peterson. “He can slip some sincere support (and even flag-waving) in there without getting maudlin. He can even make fun of himself while maintaining control over his guests.”
Colbert began his week of bonding with the troops not only with his televised haircut, but with video of his goofy “basic training” (he thought his rappelling harness made his butt look big) in his native South Carolina and riffs on his anguish over too much sand and not enough beer.
Those lines and the golf club he carried could have come straight out of the televised USO tours Bob Hope delivered over the decades. But while Hope remained a stalwart supporter of the Vietnam war, Colbert’s used his comfortable spot inside his own USO tour to fling some more pointed darts.
“It must be nice in Iraq because I understand some of you keep coming back again and again and again,” he told troops, who roared in affirmation.
Tuesday’s “Colbert Report” contested the illogic of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” Showing off a picture of the “gun” he obtained to protect himself, actually an auto muffler, Colbert explained: “Little mix-up there. My Arabic translator was kicked out under ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”
In the “Formidable Opponent” segment in which he debated himself that same night, he expressed the certainty that a veteran Air Force pilot must have earned a chest full of medals “before he was gay.”
“We have no idea,” Colbert insisted, “how he would fly now.”
The first two enlisted personnel to take Colbert’s stage were an Arab American, who said he signed on after 9/11 to redeem the reputation of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., and a female sergeant, who described how women increasingly serve in hazardous positions.
I found the segment not so funny, but surprisingly moving -- an E pluribus unum moment.
By week’s end, Colbert and his faux journalism had new luster. Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham conceded he needed the TV personality for publicity but also to lure more readers to a serious subject.
Not only President Obama, but Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. John McCain, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton jumped on Colbert’s stage, with brief video “shout outs” to the troops.
Three years ago, Colbert spoke at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, where he trashed the second President Bush so thoroughly that one would have guessed any bridge between the two had been immolated.
But early in Thursday night’s show, the final of the week from Iraq, the host promised “a special Colbert Report Baghdad Shout-out.” Up popped Bush 43 on his old nemesis’ video screen.
The moment said something about Bush’s sense of humor and about the power of a fictional character to bring everyone’s attention back to reality.