Is Stephen Colbert Making a Joke Out of this Election?

The poll that came out yesterday was something of a shocker. Rassmussen asked people, if given the choice between voting for Ron Paul or comedian Stephen Colbert for president, who would they choose. The funnyman came out on top 36%-32%.

Equally as surprising was the result if Colbert were matched up against Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich for president - 37%-32% in favor of the comedian.

That poll comes on the heels of another survey that showed Colbert getting 13% of the national vote if he were to run as an independent.

Has the country gone batty? I'll admit that Paul and Kucinich aren't qualified to be president either but at least they each have experience in government. But Colbert is a clown, a court jester. Surely people can't think he has what it takes to be president?

Whether they do or not is beside the point - especially for Colbert who announced his candidacy on his popular Comedy Central TV show on October 17. Apparently, the effort is part of a combination gag and book promotion with a bit of merry prankster mischief thrown in for good measure. Colbert is tweaking the establishment, taking his television personae of a blowhard conservative commentator and using his singular brand of humor to make the pros look like the double-talking, flip-flopping phonies so many of them are.

And just what kind of humor does he employ? Colbert's jokes brilliantly juxtapose political talking points and clichés - mixing, matching, reversing and even double reversing phrases to create a truly original kind of comedy. He refers to it as "truthiness," taking political doublespeak and turning it on its head.

Here are a couple of examples from Colbert's controversial appearance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner:

I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.

That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, "I did look it up, and that's not true." That's 'cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works.

I stand by this man. I stand by this man, because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.

There's something of a sneer underneath the laughter - a simple-minded adolescent trying to sound as if he knows more about the world than he actually does. His appearance at the Correspondents Dinner drew mixed reviews. Some believed he showed no respect for the office of the president. Others faulted his thinly veiled attacks on Laura Bush. Colbert himself didn't expect the adulation or condemnation:

In the immediate aftermath of the press-corps appearance, Colbert seemed genuinely unsettled by all the attention, refusing to speak on it publicly. At the taping I attended with the crazy-enthusiastic girl who asked about giving the president the finger, he demurred uncomfortably, saying, "For the record, I was there to do jokes." He then said of the president, "He's a charming fellow ... " before trailing off and taking the next question.

Colbert's announcement of his candidacy had been anticipated for weeks. In fact, his staff got in contact with the South Carolina Democratic and Republican parties inquiring about procedures and filing deadlines in order to get his name on both ballots. His plan is to run in South Carolina only, his home state. And he says it's not really his intent to take votes away from other candidates. But given his rabid following - the Colbert Nation - it will be hard not to have some kind of impact on the primary.

All this to give himself a platform to sell his new book %%AMAZON=0446580503 I am America (And So Can You).%% And to poke a stick in the ribs of the political elites, exposing the way that candidates can appear to be talking out of both sides of their mouth at the same time. Yet, this effort by Colbert is much different than the campaigns run by the other comedian to take to the stump, Pat Paulsen.

A regular on the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Paulsen was actually asked to run for president by the brothers saying when approached, "Why not? I can't dance - besides, the job has a good pension plan and I'll get a lot of money when I retire." Paulsen was the anti-candidate. He wasn't smooth. He didn't appear to be very smart. And when he spoke, his barbs were fairly non-partisan in nature, bashing the major candidates from both parties. His campaign slogan was "Just a common, ordinary, simple savior of America's destiny."

By contrast, Colbert makes no bones that his conservative tough guy alter ego from the show is to be hated and laughed at. He draws the character just broad enough to make him look ridiculous while still sounding like a fringe right winger. And there's an edge to Colbert's comedy that sometimes makes fun of those who are not quite as sophisticated as he and his audience believe themselves to be. People of faith, those who are too outwardly patriotic, even rural Americans can be the target of his humor. In this respect, there are those who see him as mean rather than funny.

The comic himself admits it's a balancing act to make the character unpleasant while remaining funny. But is it really necessary to belittle people by portraying their beliefs in God, country, and home as stupid and silly? Colbert knows the risks and thinks long and hard about the character to avoid such pitfalls. Obviously, he doesn't always hit the target in a way that pleases everybody.

With only a million viewers for his TV show, Colbert has become a much bigger presence as a result of turning into an internet phenomenon. Video clips of his bits are passed around and regularly appear on YouTube. And the audience for his show is made up of politically savvy young people and a significant portion of the political class thus increasing his impact enormously.

His candidacy may be a gag. But political pros are watching nervously. If Colbert were to turn his wit toward making one candidate or another look bad, who knows what kind of effect that will have on the voters?

As it stands now, the comedian will probably remain a small presence, using the backdrop of the campaign as a prop for his wildly original brand of humor.

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.