The presidential election may be over, but TV politics is still a laughing matter

Stephen Colbert on stage with a bear
Stephen Colbert on stage with a bear. Photograph: Getty Images

It is not easy to win an election when every late-night chat-show comedian is against you. Mitt Romney didn’t stand a chance. He was too rich, too handsome, too well turned out, too stiff, too entitled, too candid (about the 47 per cent), too secretive (about his tax affairs), too Mormon. During the campaign, the comics told more than twice as many jokes about Romney as about Barack Obama. Even when it was all over, there was no respite. “No gloating,” joked HBO’s Bill Maher. “The Republicans are licking their wounds. Which is, ironically, Mitt Romney’s health-care plan.”

“Romney did well with certain voters,” explained Conan O’Brien on TBS. “He had the support of men, people over 45 and married women. In other words, Mitt Romney had the support of Mitt and Ann Romney.” O’Brien is on to something. If you want to know what went wrong for Romney, look at the demographics of the TV ratings. Conservatives go to bed too early for late-night comics (who come on at 11.30pm) and are too set in their ways to watch the edgy, news-based, late-night TV comedy that informs younger voters about politics.

While conservatives bask in the red-faced anger of Fox News, younger, hipper Americans are laughing at Jon Stewart’s cod current affairs bulletin The Daily Show, the celebrity-driven satire revue Saturday Night Live and the faux-Fox show The Colbert Report. The host of the latter, Stephen Colbert, is the most ingenious and powerful because, by posing as a preening, bombastic, conservative ignoramus, he takes his gags to the heart of the enemy.

Idiot box

The real Colbert is the 11th and youngest of an Irish-American Catholic family, a father-of three, a Sunday school teacher and an avid Latin student. Accompanying a friend who was plug - ging a book about ancient Rome on The Colbert Report, I got to see him at close quarters at a studio in a converted warehouse, way west on 54th Street, New York City. Already in character, Colbert charmed the green room in sober suit and stripy tie, his Reaganesque hair plastered back with oil.

He reminds guests that, whatever they say or do, to make the comedy work, he will always remain in his conservative character. Implanted in his throne on the set, he gazes unblinking into the camera lens, raises a quizzical eyebrow, points and prods the air with a menacing pencil while encouraging the whoops of his youthful audience. Colbert confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he wanted to create “a pundit show where the character was a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot”.

So, just as Dame Edna lifts partly from Mary Whitehouse and partly from Margaret Thatcher, Colbert’s alter ego since 2005 is an extravagant homage to Fox News’s prime-time pontificator Bill O’Reilly, a blustering, bullying, false-indignant television host who presses home his pat points with humourless deliberation. Colbert summed up his nemesis’s philosophy: “Like any good newsman, I believe that if you’re not scared, I’m not doing my job.”

Colbert’s power is in the accuracy of his blows. For the final eight weeks of the election, Fox seemed to suggest that the White House had tried to cover up the true cause of the murder of the US ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, in September, though to what end the channel was never able to explain. Nonetheless, Fox kept sniping away and asking over and over: when exactly did the White House know the raid on Benghazi was a terrorist attack? Why was there a gap between what they knew and what they said in public? In his take on this trumped-up charge, Colbert paced dramatically through the studio, urgently asking the receding camera a string of ever more ridiculous rhetorical questions. Colbert’s final shot: “If you put a statement in the form of a question, is that journalism?”

The genius of Colbert is that his “Faux ’Reilly” is more successful than the real thing. O’Reilly is ahead in mere numbers, pulling in about three million viewers at prime time on Fox (humorous motto: “Fair and balanced”), while Colbert attracts about 1.5 million at 11.30pm on Comedy Central. But follow the money. Colbert attracts the audience that advertisers most want to reach – young adults between 18 and 29. Forty-three per cent of Colbert’s audience are that age, 37 per cent are 30-to-49-yearolds and just 6 per cent are over 65. Meanwhile, just 12 per cent of O’Reilly’s audience are 18-to- 29-year-olds and 40 per cent are aged over 65. Pastiche makes perfect.

Gag order

Should young Americans discover politics through comedy? Why not? Research by Fairleigh Dickinson University shows that those who get all their news from The Daily Show are better informed than those who learn all their news from cable news. And it is not just current affairs that people learn about watching the box. The Kaiser Family Foundation found more than half of ER viewers said they learned about health issues from the show and almost a third said it helped them make health-care choices.

How much should we learn from comedy and how much from the news? Should there not be a distinction between news and gags about the news? Between the news business and show business? In his private capacity, Col - bert warns, “You shouldn’t listen to us at all if you’re looking for information . . . We’re just comedians.” Yet Colbert’s doppelgänger suggests a more interesting ambiguity: “Jon [Stewart] always said The Daily Show has no political impact. We’re going to go ahead and pick up that gauntlet and change the world!”

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton (£12.99)