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The truly serious appear on `The Colbert Report'

TELEVISION & RADIO

Ex-FEMA chief is the latest public figure to cross his fingers and face the mock newscaster.

March 27, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Former FEMA director Michael D. Brown is tired of being caricatured as an incompetent federal appointee who stood by idly while the Gulf Coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. During an appearance before a Senate committee last month, he refused to accept all the blame for the government's slow response, insisting that he had warned the White House of the storm's disastrous potential.

Now he's embarking on the next step of his rehabilitation tour: He's going on "The Colbert Report."

On Tuesday, Brown is scheduled to sit down with Stephen Colbert -- who plays the bombastic, preening cable anchor on Comedy Central's 11:30 p.m. mock newscast -- for an unpredictable interview in which the only thing the former federal official can count on is the likelihood of being embarrassed.

Why, after months of being fodder for late-night television comedians, is he willing to subject himself to such a public ordeal?

Brown admits that he had never heard of "The Colbert Report" until he was invited to be a guest. But after watching several episodes, he says, "I think I know what I'm in for.

"It's not mean-spirited humor, it's just good satire," Brown said in an interview last week. "I go in with my eyes open that they will do whatever they can to make fun of me. But I hope people see I'm human and a decent guy."

Nowadays, it seems, it's not enough to field lighthearted quips on "The Tonight Show" to prove that you have a sense of humor. The real test for a public figure, especially with an image to mend, is to endure a heavy dose of ridicule at the hands of Colbert, whose parody of a pompous television pundit has attracted an impressive lineup of guests since the show premiered in October.

They don't come on to be flattered. New York state Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer, known for his crackdown on Wall Street shenanigans, made an appearance on the show to tout his gubernatorial bid, only to have Colbert inquire if he had been a tattletale as a child. California Sen. Barbara Boxer spent most of her interview shaking with horrified laughter as Colbert earnestly read aloud the sex scenes from her new novel. And when George Stephanopoulos visited the program, his host politely inquired if ABC's short-statured chief Washington correspondent needed to sit on a telephone book in order to reach the table.

"If you go into it knowing that you're not going to take yourself too seriously, it's a good way to reach a new audience," Stephanopoulos said. "I was struck how, after I went on, people who normally wouldn't see me on anything were coming up to me -- I'm talking about the checkout clerk at the grocery store, the guy at the dry cleaners."

With an average of 1.1 million viewers a night, the program gets solid if not spectacular ratings for a late-night cable show. But 40% of its audience is in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old age group, which means that "The Colbert Report" -- like its lead-in, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," from which it was spun off -- offers media figures and politicians valuable airtime in front of young viewers, even if they risk looking silly in the process.

CBS anchor Bob Schieffer said Colbert had successfully bottled the spirit of the annual Gridiron dinner, a clubby inside-the-Beltway roast of major Washington figures, and given it broad appeal.

"I think it's part of the American redemption process now that you have to let people make fun of you a bit," said 69-year-old Schieffer, who joked on the program this month that most viewers of "CBS Evening News" were older than he was.

Emily Lazar, who books "The Colbert Report" guests, said she was in discussions with a raft of likely 2008 presidential candidates who were interested in coming on, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

"Sparring with Stephen on Comedy Central humanizes politicians and makes them seem -- for lack of a better word -- cool," she said.

Of course, offering oneself up as Colbert's target is not a risk-free enterprise. Bristle at his needling and you look like a bad sport. Crack jokes, and it can seem like you're trying too hard.

"It's a gamble, because if you mess up and look foolish, it's a negative," said Boxer, who tried to cut off Colbert's recitation of the racy passages in her book by snatching his notecards out of his hand. "But I do think you do get points for just doing it."

Brown said his friends and family had had two reactions to his decision to go on the program: "Either, 'That's so cool,' or, 'Oh my God,' their head in their hands."

Still, such is Colbert's cachet that he was invited to headline the annual White House correspondents' dinner in late April. And the comedian has already managed to persuade more than 20 members of Congress to participate in his "Better Know a District" segment, in which he quizzes befuddled-seeming lawmakers with off-the-wall questions.

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