It’s easy to understand why my mother loved Jon Stewart, what Jewish mother could not love him? My mother was a secular Jew from the Bronx, raised to believe in equality, human rights and social justice. I recall her telling me when I was young that she didn’t think much of Howard Fast as a writer, but that the idealistic man who’d been blacklisted as a suspected Communist had his heart in the right place. As an old woman she was discouraged by the many signs that our country did not always have its heart in the right place. She would clench her teeth every time President Bush came on TV.
“How an obvious imbecile like that got to be president… every time I see him it makes me sick.”
She regarded him as the worst American president, definitely the worst of her lifetime. One of the last things she said to me on her deathbed at the hospice, and she said it urgently: “please promise me Sarah Palin will never be president of the United States!”
I promised her, thinking to myself “certainly not in your lifetime, mom.”
She watched Jon Stewart every night. Whenever I was in Florida with her she’d call me in to watch when his show was about to start. She found him adorable, as, of course, he is. He made her laugh, with his trenchant insights, facial expressions and overall comic brilliance. He, almost alone among the media in the years of her widowhood, gave her hope that not everyone in the world was insane. She was doubly delighted when Bill Moyers interviewed Jon Stewart and the discussion quickly became an intelligent hour long mutual admiration society between two of her favorite media personalities.
As much as she loved Jon Stewart, she had an almost visceral dislike of his gifted protege Stephen Colbert. As soon as Stewart’s show ended, even before Colbert’s American eagle swept beak and talons first toward the camera, she had the remote in hand and was looking for something else to watch. I never understood this. She couldn’t explain it, she just couldn’t stand him.
“You realize that the overbearing right wing blowhard persona is parody, he’s playing a character. He’s hilarious, mom.”
She shook her head. “I know. I don’t know what it is, I can’t watch him. I know it’s a parody, I just can’t stand him.”
So it wasn’t that she was like President Bush’s team who’d hired Colbert to do the Correspondents’ Club dinner, most likely in the mistaken belief that he was a fellow traveler, a very funny, popular comedian who happened to be patriotic and believe in the unquestionable greatness of America, right or wrong. In 2006 nobody in the media was saying too much out loud about Bush and Cheney’s muscular excesses. It was as if they were all afraid of being shot in the face with a blunderbuss full of birdshot or something.
I showed my mother the video of Colbert fearlessly skewering the president at the Correspondents’ Club. I recall at the time feeling great admiration for him, he was about the first person to publicly suggest the Emperor and those around him were naked. He showed impressive sang froid by doing it, literally, in the president’s face. My mother admitted it was a great routine. He began:
Mark Smith, ladies and gentlemen of the press corps, Madame First Lady, Mr. President, my name is Stephen Colbert and tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? 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. 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. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. (the rest is here)
Bush is still smiling gamely at this point, but his smile becomes more and more brittle until it falls off his face after a few moments. Good sport and nice guy that I’ve often heard George W. Bush is, his politics aside, I’m pretty sure he shook Colbert’s hand at the end, told him he’d done a heck of a job. But he clearly understood in pretty short order that he was being roasted by a merciless chef with a bullet-proof persona. You can see that watching his reactions on the video. My mother loved it.
I tried to get her to watch Colbert’s show a few times, but she never lasted through the opening, switching to an in progress re-run of NCIS, CSI or other murder mystery as I left, befuddled. She loved murder mysteries, particularly NCIS. Murder mysteries were increasingly all she read as she got older. No less a mystery than any of these was her intense dislike of the brilliant Mr. Colbert.
One night I was going through a box of black and white family photographs. I found a photo that made me feel like a great detective from one of her mysteries. It was a shot of my uncle, my father’s younger brother, as a young man, dressed in a well-fitting suit. It could have been a photograph of Stephen Colbert, in character as the rooster-like right-wing talk show host. My mother strongly disliked my uncle. She found him narcissistic, tyrannical, unreasonable, demanding and petty. In a word, Colbert’s character on the show. She once desperately offered me a huge monetary bribe to spend a week in Florida when my uncle and aunt planned to visit her, after my father died. She kept upping the dollar amount as I hesitated.
“Please,” she begged over the phone, “you can’t leave me alone with them! For a week! A week, Elie! There will be bloodshed.”
I rushed into her room with the photograph of my uncle.
“Is this why you hate Colbert?” I asked, handing her the photo.
“Oh, my God,” she said, staring at the picture, “oh, my God!” And then she began to laugh. Another mystery satisfyingly solved.
Draft two is here, complete with a couple of moronic editorial improvements.