Journalists rarely go gaga over celebrities because we meet so many of them, but I still remember the night I met comedian Stephen Colbert like it was my honeymoon.
It’s the only time I’ve ever been reduced to celebrity groupie status.
I was raised in the Bronx in the 70s and 80s. When members of New York City’s working class proudly scorned the celebrities around them. As if to say “you ain’t no better than me.”
I did it to actor Steve Landesberg at the height of the Barney Miller TV series in 1975, at age 10; to Florida Marlins slugger Gary Sheffield at spring training in 1998; to guitarist John Mayer in 2008; and to the Green Day band in 2011. Gleefully yelling “get out of the friggin street jackasses” at front-man Billie Joe Armstrong as his crew exited a limo ahead of me in midtown Manhattan.
“I’m walking here,” I barked self righteously. “Goddamn tourists.”
However, Colbert was different. He turned me to jelly when I met him in 2006, after he humiliated George W. Bush with a blistering monologue at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner.
What Colbert and fellow political satirist Jon Stewart were doing was more akin to investigative journalism than comedy. In many ways, they were checking political corruption better than the mainstream news media. Thanks in part to the robust legal protections afforded satire.
It’s worth recapping what they once were, now that they’ve stopped walking the political beat. Because there’s little doubt the disastrous Trump presidency would not have happened had Colbert not cashed in to play Dress Up Johnny Carson, and the bearded Stewart not begun walking the Earth like Cain in the old Kung Fu TV series.
When this dynamic duo turned over their satirical slots to second stringers John Oliver and Trevor Noah in 2014 and 2015 they opened the door wider to the over-the-top political corruption we’re now experiencing.
When Colbert departed Comedy Central and his bombastic alter ego to replace David Letterman as host of The Late Show, he viewed it as a once in a lifetime opportunity.
However, he was mistaken.
The painful “truthiness” is that The Colbert Report was the once in a lifetime opportunity.
It was the perfect vehicle for Colbert’s fertile comedic mind, which allowed him to throw crap at the political hookers ruining our nation four times a week. He was a corruption watchdog, he was relevant, and the lives of decent working American families were better because of him.
By comparison, The Late Show is an overpriced gig lesser comedians can pull off just as well. One whose empty intellectual calories have reduced Colbert’s social impact from the political equivalent of John Lennon singing “you say you want a revolution” to teen idol Tiffany Darwish singing “I think we’re alone now.”
When Colbert agreed to host The White House Correspondents Dinner he had just left the fabulously successful Daily Show with Jon Stewart to begin hosting the fabulously successful Colbert Report.
He was red hot and friggin beautiful. The embodiment of the mythical “working class hero” immortalized by Lennon in the song of the same name.
Colbert had just savaged then President George W. Bush at the dinner when I met him at one of the swanky after-parties. He was so far ahead of the curve in his understanding of the Wall Street protection racket which defines D.C. politics that his biting monologue even made me uncomfortable at times.
I didn’t care for Bush and the rampant corruption of his closest allies in the aftermath of the failed federal response to Hurricane Katrina. However, citizens were still expected to respect the Office of the President back then. Or so we thought before the current era of shameless Wall Street political payoffs in the guise of $60 million book deals, $400,000 speaking fees, bogus charitable donations and insider trading tips.
In short, it was before DC political corruption jumped the shark and before crusading journalists like Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone started dying in “mysterious accidents.” When a willing mind could still buy into the idea that our elected leaders represented the poor and faltering middle class instead of auctioning us to the highest bidder.
The satirist was locked in on Bush’s bullshit like the pilot of an A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft. He didn’t care a whit for the line between painful truths and what was then considered acceptable humor.
Unlike the current generation of satirists, Colbert and Stewart were hard on Dems as well as Republicans. They seemed to understand that the Predatory 1 Percent was represented by both political machines and the poor and middle class had been completely abandoned by both the self-described “Masters of the Universe” in New York City and the self-appointed political aristocracy in Washington, D.C.
This willingness to lash out at political hookers of every stripe gave them credibility, elevating their game above their more partisan successors.
For those of you who don’t recall the Colbert Report, it was built around a right wing blowhard. The fictional character was a combination of Wingnut propagandists Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, and silver spoon Donald Trump.
By raising the class warfare rhetoric of the Predatory 1 Percent to rarefied heights, Colbert habitually exposed both their knowing lies and the conscious treason of the politicians on their payroll.
The satirist started his dinner monologue by comparing the hugely unpopular Geedub, whose approval rating had fallen to 32 Percent, to boxer Rocky Balboa (above right) in the fictional Rocky film series. He did this before a crowd of influential Americans dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns.
“I don’t believe this is a low point in this presidency,” Colbert said. “I believe it is just a lull before a comeback. I mean, it’s like the movie Rocky…
“The president in this case is Rocky Balboa (and) it’s the tenth round. He’s bloodied. His corner man, Mick, who in this case I guess would be the vice president, he’s yelling, ‘Cut me, Dick, cut me.’
“And every time he falls everyone says, ‘Stay down! Stay down!’
“Does he stay down? No. Like Rocky, he gets back up, and in the end he — actually, he loses in the first movie.
“OK. Doesn’t matter,” Colbert said. “The point is it is the heart-warming story of a man who was repeatedly punched in the face.
“So don’t pay attention to the approval ratings that say 68 percent of Americans disapprove of the job this man is doing. I ask you this, does that not also logically mean that 68 percent approve of the job he’s not doing?
“Think about it,” Colbert said. “I haven’t.”
“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.”
If Geedub was Rocky that night, then Colbert was Clubber Lang. The brutal boxer who brings the pain to Rocky in the third film in the series.
“I gotta lotta mo,” Lang says to himself in a neutral corner, cheerfully tapping his gloves together as Rocky lifts himself off the canvas. “A lotta mo.”
So did Colbert, who proceeded to chide the ethically challenged DC press corps for its willingness to report knowing lies on behalf of newsmakers in exchange for scoops and exclusive interviews. The practice is called access journalism.
“Here’s how it works: the president makes decisions,” Colbert explained. “He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions and you people in the press type them down. Make, announce, type. Just put them through a spell check and go home.
“What incentive do these people have to answer your questions?” Colbert asked. “After all, nothing satisfies you.
“Everyone asks for personnel changes, so the White House has personnel changes and everybody’s like, ‘oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’
“First of all, that’s a horrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.”
One of the dirty little secrets about the White House Correspondents Dinner is that it’s poser heaven. There actually are very few real working journos at the thing. It’s the kind of event where media executives elbow their own people aside in the national press corps so they can play journalist for a night.
The execs don’t actually write anything up, because that would be too much like honest work. Instead, they grab almost all of the seats for themselves, their spouses and kids, and their Wall Street buddies.
The other dirty little secret is that many of the celebrities in attendance are paid to be there. At least at the swanky private parties which precede the dinner and follow it.
I was only at the event in 2006 because I’d been able to land former Fed Deputy Chair Alan Blinder and his wife as my guests. And because I’d just broken one of the biggest stories of the year with my tale of the first official body count inside St Rita’s Nursing Home.
For a couple weeks I was almost a somebody.
It didn’t last long. Mostly because of my big mouth, affinity for painful truths, and working class contempt for those born into wealth. Which is why I now run the tiny nonprofit Cynical Times with six national journalism awards and a master’s degree from The Columbia University School of Journalism.
I ran into Colbert shortly after his monologue at an opulent after-party hosted by one of the financial news services. The guest list included both winning Super Bowl quarterbacks; a bunch of actors, actresses, singers and models; and both Serena Williams and her sister Venus.
It was a surreal event on a surreal evening, held in the sprawling mansion which serves as the Macedonian Embassy.
I approached Colbert and said “hey man, I’m a big fan of both The Daily Show and your new show. I love your work.”
Colbert was still fired up and ready to scrap. With anyone and everyone.
“Everybody says that,” he barked. ‘Prove it. What’s your favorite episode?”
I stared insolently at my hero.
Colbert’s painfully alert eyes met mine. South Carolina versus the Bronx. You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out how this showdown was going to end.
“You know that episode where one of the female correspondents goes to the sperm collection lab in Iowa and jacks off the hog?” I said dryly.
Colbert’s eyebrows instantly shot up his forehead.
“Oh my god,” he shouted breathlessly. “That episode is called Swine Song. It’s my favorite too.”
(Click the pic above for the video)
“In fact, I was just showing it to our new correspondent Samantha Bee,” Colbert continued, gushing like a teenager.
Then I said “Samantha Who?”
Cause I’m a friggin genius like that.
Then he said “Samantha Bee. She’s gonna be big some day.”
“Never heard of her,” I said.
We chatted for a bit more. Then Colbert threw an arm around me as a colleague snapped the pic at the top of this column. His armpit smelled just like a York Peppermint Pattie.
I think we make an attractive couple. And I’m not gay. At least I wasn’t before I met him.
The after-party actually began a few hours earlier for me, when I ran into sportscaster Tony Kornheiser (left) wandering aimlessly outside the Macedonian Embassy like a lost child. He was the color analyst for Monday Night Football at the time.
A modest guy from the Baltimore area, Kornheiser was clueless about the shameless politics of celebrity, which reward high ratings with VIP treatment in our society.
“Hey Tony Kornheiser,” I said. “You want some help?”
“Yeah, how do I get in,” he said, pondering the long line of rich people standing outside the mansion entrance in a light rain. Event staffers were passing out free umbrellas to them, lest they begin to melt like The Wicked Witch of the West.
“I can get you in,” I said.
I pimped the sports journo out to the public relations crew at the door, exchanging him for my own early admittance. Getting an A-List celebrity inside the venue for free was a coup in their eyes. Unbeknownst to Kornheiser, they would have happily paid him to be there.
I immediately monetized my early entry by pilfering the jumbo shrimp at one of the big catering tables inside. A bigwig from my news bureau waved me over.
“Fuggit,” I said to myself, grabbing a final handful.
Joe was a gray-haired journalism lifer who had hired me in 2004. He was widely respected and liked in a DC press corps rife with posers and backstabbing sonsabitches. The kind of hard-bitten editor who commands respect even from difficult a-holes like me.
“Victor, I need your help,” Joe whispered conspiratorially, pulling me close. People love to hug me for some reason. Especially taller guys who can fit my 5’8″ frame into the crotch of their armpits.
“What can I do?” I asked deferentially.
“I was supposed to meet a Mister Kool Jay after the dinner and bring him over here,” Joe said.
“LL Kool J?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” Joe said. “I think that was it.”
It was pretty clear he was not familiar with the celebrity assigned to him.
“I know who he is Joe,” I said. “He’s a well known rap singer by the way. He’s pretty famous.
“Even though he’s from Queens,” I continued, the Bronx schoolboy in me adding a silent admonition of ‘Fugg Queens.’
“Well, I’ve never heard of him,” said Joe, who had grown up on Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. “Do you know what he looks like?”
“Yeah,” I said, drawing the word out. “Why?”
“Is he one of the Africa American gentlemen in the group behind us?”
I stole a brief glance at them. There were less than 20 guests in the mansion, which would eventually be bursting at the seams with more than 800. Four were gathered in the knot behind me.
“No,” I said, drawing the word out again. “But there is someone back there you should know about.”
“Cedric the Entertainer.”
“Never heard of him,” Joe said.
That surreal exchange was kind of par for the night.
DC is its own world. Just like Vegas, Hollywood, Wall Street, and the Hamptons.
None of them have much in common with the rest of this great nation. Especially the smaller communities in Flyover Country, where suicidal methheads now wander like zombies in a post-apocalyptic landscape of shuttered factories and boarded up Main Streets.
If you want to know just how insulated the national press corps and the political hookers they cover are from the rest of us, the best way to find out is to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner. If you can get a ticket.
Good luck with that.
As the evening progressed, the movers and shakers, has-beens, never-weres and almost somebodies became progressively more intoxicated and the lights dimmed. Attractive sales ladies from the financial news industry moved through the crowded dance floor, nerdy Wall Street executives in tow. Like high school cheerleaders leading horny football players around at the prom.
Two of them were engaged in the physical act of quid pro quoitus beneath the strobe lights in a corner of the mansion. The Wall Street financier’s back was to the crowd as he slowly fingered the anorexic sales pro beneath her stylish summer dress.
“Nothing but nothing but class” as we used to say back home in the Boogiedown.
The couple was oblivious to the fact that one side of their private corner was a tinted glass door. It opened onto the patio where my fellow cynical journos and I were smoking, drinking and quietly critiquing them.
We were stuck outside the mansion as the sales pro squirmed against the wall, on the verge of closing the deal.
Our group waited patiently for the negotiations to conclude. Knowing that as reporters we no longer count for much in our eroding industry. At least not in comparison to the ambitious sales people and arrogant executives who had flown down from Manhattan.
God help anyone who costs them a sale.
Dance floors at events like this in DC are always crowded, but not with dancers. The power crowd gathers on them in small stationary groups, gazing outward. Requisite drinks in hand. Like a herd of Muskox.
The members of each group revel in their own importance as they discreetly measure the relative juice of the other knots of people around them. Much like the leathery old bulls with Elvis hair-dos at the top of the Las Vegas social pyramid.
The old bulls dearly love to demonstrate that the normal rules of civilized behavior don’t apply to them. Preferably with some kind of boorish semi-public display.
In Vegas, they like to single out a strapping young fella working at one of the casinos and chew him out in front of everyone. Preferably, while holding a drink in one bony claw as they point an arthritic finger in the kid’s face.
The old bulls in DC demonstrate the same kind of social dominance by publicly degrading the ambitious lackeys around them.
This time the targets included a beautiful older woman who looked a lot like Eleanor Clift (above right). The Newsweek journo, who served as the designated liberal on The McLaughlin Group news show back then. She looked elegant and accomplished as she strode confidently across the dance floor in a wispy summer dress.
Suddenly, a gnarled hand reached out from one knot of tuxedos and brusquely grabbed her ass through the thin fabric. The bony fingers reaching between the cheeks, searching upward. Deep and rough.
The woman spun on her heel, face twisted into an outraged snarl. Instantly, the fierce look transformed into a becoming smile as she realized the claw belonged to show host John McLaughlin.
That incident is DC in a nutshell for me.
The capital is all about power, weakness and desire. Haves like McLaughlin with no impulse control and ambitious lackeys with no principles which cannot be compromised.
It’s a city filled to the brim with arrogant a-holes who didn’t get beat up nearly enough in junior high school and ambitious power groupies who will do anything to be part of the cool kids clique. No matter how much they have to debase themselves.
This is the kind of unprincipled garbage which passes for leadership in our nation right now.
They have more than they deserve, more than they will ever need, and it’s still not enough to fill their empty souls.
Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart struck the fear of God into them for a few years and we were all better for it.
I don’t know if there’s a comedic equivalent of the proverbial Bat Signal or of Princess Leia saying “help us Obi Won Kenobi, you’re our only hope.” Something the faltering middle class can use to summon Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart back from the netherworld subway where the Matrix trainman apparently has imprisoned them.
Bottom line, somebody has to get their attention. Because they’re needed.
Hell, I’ll give it a shot: “Hey fugg sticks, snap out of it. You’re not supposed to be part of the garbage. You’re supposed to be policing the garbage. Remember?”
To paraphrase Jake Weber’s character in Dawn of the Dead: “Please Stephen, there’s people here right now could use your help.”
Let’s all hope for a more supportive response than the one Ving Rhames actually delivered. (click pic at right for video).