There's a simple reason why Stephen Colbert – or rather, the blustery, egocentric, reactionary, right-wing pundit character he plays on TV – is so lovable, despite all the reprehensible things he says and believes. The secret: You can't hate a baby.
He's a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot”, as the out-of-character Colbert has described his persona on several occasions, and there's a gleeful, childlike innocence behind the guy that makes it all relatable. You sense that gruff FOX News staples like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity should be old and worldly enough to know better, but the Colbert character is funny because he can't help being an ignorant jerk. He hasn't hit political preschool yet.
It explains why the Colbert Report host can get away with calling American slavery “our Unpaid African Internship Program” or German blutwurst “the second-worst thing the Germans have ever done”, or with comparing Native American displacement with the Occupy movement: “Indians [were] the original Ninety-Nine Percent... they had drum circles, camped out in tents, and were eventually evicted by armed white people.” We should be offended by these statements (and would if Ann Coulter said them), but Colbert sells them brilliantly. These and others appear throughout the comedian's third book, America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't, a sort of sequel to his 2007 bestseller, I Am America (And So Can You!).
Written by Colbert along with the writing staff of The Colbert Report, America Again reproduces much of the tone of the Comedy Central series – a mix of wit, irony, Onion-esque media parody, gimmicks and outright absurdity that's right up to the minute on the issues. It's not as consistently funny as I Am America, and some of the humour has a strangely scatological bent this time around (I do not recommend reading the Chapter Four bit about Mrs. Havermeyer's brownies while you're eating). Nonetheless, it's still a book thick with great punchlines and brash sociopolitical observations that Colbert's fans will gobble up.
America Again lampoons the post-Avatar surge in 3-D movies with “Depthiness”, including actual 3-D mock-up photos of Colbert in various settings, and it comes with actual cardboard 3-D glasses. (Even funnier, the pictures are in the lame “flat layers” 3-D style reminiscent of the little comic-book prizes in Shreddies boxes.) The individual chapters tackle Colbert's twisted takes on Wall Street, health care, the economy, crime and punishment, the election process and the food industry. Whereas the earlier book was scattered with hilarious side notes, this one opts for footnotes, and some of the best are the most redundant ones or the ones that comment on other footnotes.
Among the recurring features are “Truth Punch” (a call-out sidebar illustrated with a fist), parody graphs, mock application forms and “My Turn”, in which an average Joe – actually Colbert himself, shamelessly pretending to be somebody else – gets to contribute his voice. Highlights include “The Aynt and the Grasshopper”, an Ayn Rand-influenced retelling of the fable, and “Earl Branson... In His Own Words”, in which a coal magnate writes about his first-world problems in the accent of an uneducated miner: “Ever' time I take the elevator up that shaft, I'm thinkin', I don't know if I'll be comin' home tonight – 'cuz I might knock off in the middle of the afternoon.”
There are moments, though, when Colbert's writers get a little derivative. A “My Turn” by a Canadian hoser tries to milk laughs from the tired stereotype of over-polite, apologizing Canucks, although the spelling of “Sourry!” did amuse me. A section on books inevitably refers to Curious George as Bi-Curious George, and an essay parodying Atticus Finch steals Homer Simpson's classic “I'm out of order? You're out of order!...” barrage of random angry movie quotes. Even doctors' pro-smoking ads from the 1950s are a brief target. It's been done, slightly better.
Thankfully, it always comes back to Colbert's own clueless persona, whose tone is so clear in the book that you actually hear the mock pundit's deadpan voice in your head as you read. As on the TV show, many of the best lines are those in which Colbert's character inadvertently reveals his own stupidity or entitled naiveté.
On the police: “The only folks who care about our boys in blue more than I do may be '80s rappers N.W.A., who... wrote a song about making love to them.”
On employment regulations: “I was in a restaurant, and there was a sign in the restroom that said, 'Employees Must Wash Hands.' I waited for nearly a half-hour. No employee showed up to wash my hands. Even when I tracked one down and insisted, they did it begrudgingly...”
So while America Again does have a “more of the same” feel, that's not always a bad thing when you're dealing with satire as smart as Colbert's.