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TELEVISION REVIEW

Colbert in fine form rallying troops in Iraq

In 'The Colbert Report's' opener from Baghdad, the comedian mostly stays away from politics while managing to rope McCain and Obama into his routine.

June 10, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

Stephen Colbert has taken "The Colbert Report" on the road to Baghdad this week, broadcasting Monday through Thursday from Saddam Hussein's former Al Faw Palace, now within the confines of Camp Victory. Appearing in a camouflage-patterned suit, with khaki shirt and tie, he carried a golf club as a kind of salute to Bob Hope, who did this sort of thing all the time, on TV and off.

"What an honor it is for you to have me here," Colbert told his audience, gathered in a high-ceilinged marbled hall into which he imported his own brand of visual overkill.

As is widely known, but not always well understood, Colbert plays puffed-up right-wing pundit Stephen Colbert; much of what he says is meant to be ironic, but not all of it, which makes his character a little hard to fix. Indeed, an Ohio University study suggested that conservative undergraduates were likely to identify Colbert's onscreen character as an authentic Republican, while liberals saw him as joking. This is in part because the real Colbert (a self-identified Democrat, a serious Catholic) is not entirely masked by the fake one, and because, like most of us, he is more complicated than any labels you might apply to him.

Monday's opening show from Iraq ("a country so nice we invaded it twice") was not often political, at least not in any clearly partisan sense. If there was a point to the USO-sponsored trip -- besides the obvious one, to entertain the troops -- it was, Colbert has said, to reawaken public consciousness of the war and the people fighting it, and he seemed genuinely happy and excited to be there. Republican Sen. John McCain appeared on tape to advise the audience to "make sure to always take the time to clean your musket"; the president appeared by satellite -- in a delayed kicker to an earlier filmed segment in which Colbert went to boot camp -- to order commanding Gen. Ray Odierno to "shave that man's head." This unlikely comedy trio was mostly a testament to the audience, but it says something as well about the cultural power of Colbert's little comedy show.

Though "The Colbert Report" is a house of mirrors, Colbert's intentions here strike me as utterly straightforward and only incidentally commercial. Like Hope's, this was a show for the troops, and Colbert's targets Monday were the targets of other comics entertaining other troops in other wars: the heat, the lack of alcohol, the fecklessness of the brass -- Colbert suggested that their generals were too "busy storming [a] golf course in Tampa-stan" to declare an end to the war, and so he took it on himself to officially declare it over "by the power vested in me by basic cable."

The laughs came in the right places, and frequently rolled into cheers.

--

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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