The wackiest guest-editor stunt in the recent history of American magazines came when Tina Brown invited Roseanne Barr to conceptualize an issue of The New Yorker. One cannot quite remember what Roseanne did while sitting in Mr. Shawn’s old chair. There is the vague sense that she commissioned some funny women to write casuals and also maybe snarfed Budweiser all over Roger Angell at a Yankees game. She definitely horrified some nice old ladies on the Upper West Side, perhaps thereby performing a service for them. Nothing gets the circulation going like righteous indignation. Stephen Colbert failed to create a commensurate fuss this week in guest-editing Newsweek (Slate’s big sister within the Washington Post Company). The hook was a week of episodes of The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, Mondays through Thursdays at 11:30 p.m. ET) taped in Baghdad before an audience of U.S. soldiers, and the print exploits were fairly mild. Colbert was gently amusing up front in a faux letters page, decently humorous in a back-page humor piece, and perfectly sincere in words quoted at the opener of an all-Iraq feature well: “My character and I both think it’s a shame that we’re not talking about the troops anymore.” That quote points up the most notable aspect of Colbert’s performances at the fabulous Al Faw Palace, a four-night-stand code-named “Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando.” Here, the satirist and his satiric character came together. The line between them hazed over, as if lost in a mist of patriotic emotion. And maybe also in clouds of desert sand: On the first three nights of Operation Iraqi Stephen, Colbert, playing to his audience, relied too heavily on jokes about sandstorms, as when he and Tom Hanks shook grains of Tang into a care package. But that was pretty much the only pandering Colbert allowed himself all week. He saluted the military by being himself, both of his selves.
Other political comedians have hit the USO circuit—witness trusty leftie Al Franken doing a fine Saddam impression—but Colbert, paying tribute to the troops in Iraq after tirelessly mocking the politicians who sent them there, had a tougher trick to execute. This week, it was less important that the fictional Colbert was a fake-populist right-wing blowhard than that he was a blow-dried blowhard overdue for a buzz cut. So the jokes were charmingly silly rather than scabrously funny. Colbert elicited more thoughtful responses from his guests—generals and rank-and-file soldiers, among others—than Anderson Cooper would have managed. Elsewhere, he set up jokes for them most graciously. “You’re essentially the Joe Biden of Iraq,” he said to the country’s deputy prime minister. “Do I wanna be that?” came the reply.
Colbert’s deft control of tone was most intriguingly on display in a special edition of his Formidable Opponent segment. Debating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell with his mirror image, he twitted the policy without demonizing those who might support it. It was perhaps a slightly risky move, given his audience, and it was rewarded with substantial hoots. Which brings us to perhaps the most important public service Colbert provided in his fertile jaunt to a sand-dipped crescent: He reminded his core audience of jaded college-boy liberals that the soldiers they scoff at as automatons are their peers. Nothing unites a group like laughter. In his clowning, Colbert performed an act of patriotism far beyond politicians’ rote statements about honoring the troops. Give him a medal for valor beyond the call of clowning.