WASHINGTON — Most politicians are as likely to pass up free TV face time before an election as they would be to refuse a campaign check.
Then again, there's a price to be paid for looking stupid.
That's what members of Congress have learned recently about "Better Know a District," a sarcastic weekly skit that is part of "The Colbert Report," a nightly half-hour on Viacom Inc.'s Comedy Central network.
Hosted by comedian Stephen Colbert, the year-old program is a spinoff of the cable channel's wildly popular "The Daily Show Starring Jon Stewart" and one of an increasing number of political humor shows on cable that are drawing the young viewers whom advertisers covet.
Politicians covet them too for their votes. So, many lawmakers initially played along with the segments in which Colbert interviews a member of the House of Representatives, with few checks and balances on his proclivity to make fools of them.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
'The Colbert Report': A Business section article Oct. 22 about lawmakers' reluctance to appear on the Comedy Central series "The Colbert Report" described it as a spinoff of "The Daily Show Starring Jon Stewart." That series is called "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
But after a couple of House members stumbled badly on the show, some incumbents decided that the dumbest thing to do with Colbert's offer of free TV exposure was to take it.
"I watch it all the time," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), "and I think, 'Why would anybody go on there?' "
With polls showing that the balance of power in Congress could shift from Republican to Democrat in next month's elections, few incumbents are in the mood to take chances. Indeed, it's been two months since a current member has appeared.
One who did appear, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), discovered the pitfalls when Colbert asked him about a bill he co-sponsored requiring that the Ten Commandments be displayed in the U.S. Capitol.
"What are the Ten Commandments?" Colbert asked matter-of-factly.
"What are all of them?" Westmoreland said, taken aback. "You want me to name them all?"
The June segment showed Westmoreland struggling to name just three. Westmoreland actually named seven, said his press secretary, Brian Robinson. And the remaining ones, he added, were somewhat obscure.
A Bible Belt conservative, the embarrassed Westmoreland has been trying to live down his Commandments performance. No Republican has appeared since.
Negative phone calls from around the country poured in to Westmoreland's office, mostly from liberals charging hypocrisy, Robinson said. Several clips of the segment are posted on the YouTube website, and Westmoreland's Democratic opponent, Mike McGraw, put the video on his campaign website.
"It's a great thing to do if all Americans had a sense of humor," Robinson said of a Colbert appearance. "Unfortunately, some don't get the joke."
What really got the attention of House members was the experience of Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). Colbert told him he was free to make even the most outrageous statements because he was running for reelection unopposed. Then Colbert coaxed Wexler into a spoof declaration that he enjoyed cocaine and prostitutes because "it's a fun thing to do."
Several media outlets trumpeted Wexler's comments without making it clear that he was only answering Colbert's fill-in-the-blank questions.
"I'm going to try to keep my day job and not go into comedy," Wexler said, although he noted that the reaction from his constituents was overwhelmingly positive.
Wexler's gaffe, following Westmoreland's trouble, has made some legislators gun-shy about facing Colbert with elections approaching. Colbert and the show's staff have declined media interviews about the segments since the Wexler episode.
But ignoring Colbert has its own perils.
When Rep. Sue W. Kelly (R-N.Y.) declined to appear for the segment that aired Thursday night, Colbert invited her Democratic opponent, John Hall.
"I oppose everything that you stand for," Colbert said, "but you were willing to talk to me. So let's move your numbers right here. Let's smear your opponent."
Hall picked from a deck of "smear cards" fanned by Colbert.
"My opponent smokes marijuana," Hall said blankly.
"That's a bold accusation," the host responded. "It's out there now that Sue Kelly smokes pot."
Ever since Richard Nixon delivered the "Sock it to me" punch line on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" during the 1968 presidential campaign, politicians have sought to use comedy shows to prove they aren't the stiffs they seem to be. Gerald Ford taped two brief lines from the White House for a 1976 episode of "Saturday Night Live."
Bill Clinton defused criticism over a painfully long speech at the 1988 Democratic convention by letting "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson place an hourglass in front of him during an interview. Four years later, Clinton scored points in his 1992 presidential campaign by playing the saxophone on comic Arsenio Hall's talk show.
But Colbert's series is different.