February 27, 2021

The Media Equation: Comic’s PAC Is More Than a Gag

A) Citizens for a Working America

B) Make Us Great Again

C) Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow

D) We Love USA

If you guessed that C was the fake, you’d be wrong. It was a trick question: these are all legitimate Super PACs. “Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” was created by the comedian Stephen Colbert, which makes it funnier.

But not by much. Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow may be a running gag on “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, but it is spending money as it sees fit, with little in the way of disclosure, just like its noncomedic brethren.

Comedians, including Mr. Colbert in the last election, have undertaken faux candidacies. But his Super PAC riff is a real-world exercise, engaging in a kind of modeling by just doing what Super PACs do.

And he has come under some real-world criticism for inserting himself in the political process so directly. Mr. Colbert, who lampoons conservative talk show hosts by pretending to be one, is now making fun of Super PACs by actually forming one. His committee spent money on advertising in Iowa during the run-up to the Ames straw poll, which took place Aug. 13. It’s as though Jonathan Swift took his satirical suggestion about Irish babies one step further and actually cooked one.

At first blush, it seemed to be one more skirmish in the culture wars: East Coast funnyman uses his fan base to pay for satirical commercials, implicitly demeaning the Ames straw poll in specific, and Iowa in general. Mr. Colbert suggested that all the soft-money ads with their soft-focus shots of rural tableaus were exposing the children of Iowa to “cornography.” But the folkways being criticized belonged to the Beltway, not the Corn Belt.

“I am much taken by this and can’t think of any real parallel in history,” said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. “Yes, comedians have always told jokes about elections, but this is quite different. This is a funny person being very serious, actually talking about process. What comedian talks about process?”

Mr. Colbert not only talks about process, he has become a part of it. The current law governing political action committees was laid down in a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, which lifted many restrictions on how corporations, unions and others could spend money on behalf of almost any cause.

In the 2010 Congressional races, Super PACs spent over $60 million, managing to get their voices heard through what Mr. Colbert has described as a “megaphone of cash.”

In May, Mr. Colbert applied for status as a Super PAC with the Federal Elections Commission and was approved in June. “This is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical,” he explained.

More than 165,000 fans of the show have signed up since he got approval, many of them sending along money to finance his evil plot to make fun of campaign finance abuse.

Just before the straw poll last week in Ames, Mr. Colbert’s committee paid for broadcast ads that criticized the spending on behalf of the Texas governor, Rick Perry, who had more than a six-pack of Super PACs raising money for him even before he declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination.

In one ad, ominous music played and a flurry of dollars moved across the screen as the announcer intoned: “A storm is gathering over Iowa, a money storm. Out-of-state groups like Grow PAC and Jobs for Iowa PAC are flooding the Iowa airwaves, telling you to vote Rick Perry at the Ames straw poll. They think they can buy your vote with their unlimited Super Pac money.”

The ad suggested that participants in the straw poll should write in the name “Richard Parry,” saying the rogue “a” “stands for America” and for “IowA.” Two television stations in Des Moines ran the ad, while a third, WOI-TV, refused, saying that it would confuse voters — as opposed to the normally straightforward political discourse that PAC’s generally engage in, I guess.

Mr. Colbert made fun of the station, then apologized, and now the two former antagonists agreed to try to get to the bottom of just how many people in the straw poll voted for “Rick Parry.”

The Colbert Super PAC may be a stunt, but it has the imprimatur of the Federal Elections Commission: “Mr. Colbert may establish and operate the committee. The committee may solicit and accept unlimited contributions from individuals, political committees, corporations, and labor organizations,” its ruling in June read. Just in case people didn’t get the joke about the razor-thin line between parody and politics, Salvatore Purpura, the treasurer of Mr. Colbert’s Super PAC, quit last week to take a job — as treasurer of Mr. Perry’s campaign.

(It should surprise no one that Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, which plays host to “The Colbert Report,” is hardly on the sidelines in elections. In the 2010 elections, the company’s Super PAC spent $236,200 on both Democrats and Republicans Congressional candidates, spreading its bets while spreading the cash.)

While most of the rest of the news media continue to cover the coming election with long-running tropes — whose horse is ahead and who has the most loot? — Mr. Colbert has taken the equivalent of a political homework assignment and sprinkled a little silly sauce on top, and people seem happy to dig in.

E-mail: carr@nytimes.com;


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