What's So Funny? Why Colbert Is Funny and Cain Is Not

On January 20, 2012 Stephen Colbert announced on The Colbert Report that he intended to explore the possibility of running for President of South Carolina. After transferring control of his Super PAC to Jon Stewart he was free to become a candidate.

But there was one glitch.

It was too late to get on the Republican Primary ballot in South Carolina. Did that stop Colbert? Of course not. Soon after the announcement, Colbert explained how his supporters could, in fact, vote for him. What they needed to do was to vote for Herman Cain. Cain may have dropped out of the race, but his name was still on the ballot. So why not use Cain's slot for Colbert?

In surprising non-coordinated synchronicity, the Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC released an ad explaining the strategy that same day. Watch it here:

The Colbert Report

The ad was a direct parody of an earlier Cain ad that Colbert had spoofed when it originally came out. The Cain ad was so disturbingly absurd that Colbert had little work to do to mock it. Throughout Cain's campaign Colbert regularly ridiculed him and likely joined forces with Cain's own mistakes to help end his run.

This is why the decision to merge Colbert and Cain left some wondering. Colbert told supporters "Cain is me." What was Colbert up to this time? And what would be Cain's response?

This is where the art of Colbert's satire really kicked in. Colbert took the one candidate who would love to be in on a joke and used it to his own advantage. Recall that Cain stated that if elected he "would bring a sense of humor to the White House, because America's too uptight!"

Cain could hardly turn Colbert down.

So in a brilliant example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, the two men came together this Friday to host "The Rock Me Like a Herman Cain: South Cain-olina Primary Rally." Colbert told supporters that the event would give him a chance to further prove that he and Herman "are the same man."

Are they the same man? Each of them prides themselves on being funny, but are their jokes really the same?

Of course not. One of them was a presidential candidate and the other is a comedian on Comedy Central.

That, however, is not the difference that matters. Even though Colbert has blurred the lines between political involvement and entertainment, there is still a huge distinction between these two men. Colbert is a satirist whose goal is to call attention to the folly of our political system while entertaining his audience. Cain's humor, in contrast, is degrading, silly, and, at times outright insulting.

So Colbert and Cain might both like jokes -- but one of them uses jokes to restore democracy while the other doesn't. One of them is mocking a system that needs revision; the other is a mockery of the system.

During the rally, while Cain sang songs, quoted Pokémon, and pointed out his campaign manager -- "the smoking man," Colbert used the opportunity to speak to the audience about the fact that two years ago the Supreme Court decided that corporations were people and had the right to "free speech" in the Citizen's United case. The decision gave corporations an unlimited ability to influence politics through Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s. At the heart of Colbert's appearance was his insistence that a democracy that privileges corporations and affords them the rights of citizens is in grave danger. The backdrop to his satirical stunts these past days has been a concerted effort to encourage public outrage at corporate influence over campaign finance. He has been using humor to restore democracy.

Still having trouble telling the difference between Cain and Colbert? Then remember one of the biggest "jokes" of Cain's candidacy -- the moment when he claimed that his proposal to electrify a fence on the US-Mexico border was just a joke. Watch that clip here:

As The New York Times reported back in October:

At two campaign rallies in Tennessee on Saturday night, the Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain said that part of his immigration policy would be to build an electrified fence on the country's border with Mexico that could kill people trying to enter the country illegally.

But by Sunday morning, in a dramatic change of tone, Mr. Cain, a former restaurant executive, said he was only kidding.

"That's a joke," Mr. Cain told the journalist David Gregory during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," where he was asked about the electrified fence. "That's not a serious plan. I've also said America needs to get a sense of humor."

Get a sense of humor? About electrocuting immigrants? There seems little doubt that Cain's humor has little to do with Colbert's.

It is worth remembering that at one point Cain was topping the polls. Perhaps the public recognized that they didn't share Cain's sense of humor. Let's hope that they share Colbert's.