Tuned In

Colbert and Cain Do the Charleston: Which One’s the Comedian?

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I’ve never been to Charleston, S.C., but I’m pretty sure that, for this afternoon at least, Randolph Hall at the College of Charleston was located at the intersection of Reality and Satire. There it was that Stephen Colbert and Herman Cain, unlikely ballotfellows, held a funny, serious and seriously funny rally to promote Colbert’s bid to get South Carolinians to vote for him by voting for Herman Cain in the state’s Jan. 21 primary.

If you haven’t been following the story, Colbert, having failed to get on the state’s Republican ballot for his satirical run and stymied by a no-write-ins rule, decided to take advantage of the fact that non-candidate Herman Cain remains on the ballot. Appearing with the pizza executive and onetime Republican frontrunner, Colbert introduced him as “a man with ideas, a man with conviction, a man with a bus with his face on it.” And a man his supporters can game the primary rules by legally voting for.

Colbert, a sometime musical theater actor, opened the rally by leading the crowd and a gospel choir in a singalong of “This Little Light of Mine”—complete with key change—then took the harmony in the National Anthem. The Comedy Central host was not there to campaign negatively, he vowed: “I will not say that the only difference between Mitt Romney and a statue of Mitt Romney is that the statue never changes its position.” He was not there to pander: ” I know I don’t need to pander… to the most beautiful people in the world!”

Then Colbert turned over the stage to “the man we’ve all gathered here to see introduce me.” Cain, for his part addressed the crowd as if it were a dead-serious political rally and he were still a candidate. Though with Herman Cain, “dead serious” still allows for some latitude. Colbert, he said, asked for his help because “he does not have my complexion perfection. That was a joke, y’all.”

But he then launched into a straight, earnest call for his listeners to visit his political site, CainConnections.com (I’ll let you make the dating joke) and urged the crowd to join him in changing a “broken” system from the outside.

How? I can’t tell you, not to slight Cain or his message but because my online video feed cut out for several minutes at this point. (The major cable-news networks, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not air the rally live, though CNN, NBC News and other sites carried the online feed.) It returned just in time for Cain to finish up, and I am not making this up, by singing “Believe in Yourself (Dorothy)” from The Wiz.

Then it was back to Colbert, whose message was also about a broken political system, albeit delivered with straight-faced irony. Colbert set up a real campaign super PAC last year to spoof, and educate about, the results of the Citizens United Supreme Court case, which he said today addressed “tragic lack of influence by corporations” by letting companies, unions and individuals anonymous contribute millions to political action groups. He then turned it over to crony Jon Stewart as he ran in South Carolina to spoof, well, how easily a “noncoordinated” super PAC can be turned over to your cronies.

Colbert did all this, he said today, “to make your voice heard, in the form of my voice. Well, nation, I have to ask: can you hear you now?” If so, he beseeched, “Tomorrow, Jan. 21, the two-year anniversary of Citizens United, you can thank the Supreme Court by going into that booth and voting for Herman Cain.”

It was appropriate enough that the day involved a serenade from The Wiz by a recent major candidate. Because it sure feels like we’ve been spirited into some alternative world, one where comedians turn into political leaders and political leaders into comics like ordinary people transmuting into lions and tin woodsmen, where the theatrical tropes of late-night political satire meet the actual language of political candidates.

“The pundits have asked,” Colbert said, if his campaign is all a joke. “If they are calling being allowed to form a super PAC and [collect] unlimited and untraceable amounts of money from individuals and unions and corporations and spend that money on political ads and for personal enrichment and surrender that super PAC to one of my closest friends while I explore a run for office—if that is a joke, then they are saying our entire campaign finance system is a joke.” And if corporations are indeed people, he concluded, then it follows that “government of those people, by those people and paid for by those people shall not perish from this Earth!”

It’s funny, as they say, because it’s true.