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Somewhere in New Jersey

It's one thing to joke about politics. It's quite another to turn our mostly ludicrous, but occasionally effective politics into one big joke.
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Dear Stephen,

I don't know if you remember me. I live behind you, with my wife and two children, in "Colbert's charming little carriage house at the bottom of the hill," as I recently heard someone inaccurately describe our modest colonial home while I was standing on line at Whole Foods. I am writing today as both a conscientious neighbor and a concerned citizen. I would like to ask you to end your ongoing prank of forming your own political action committee. I tried shouting something to that effect to you from our backyard last Saturday, but you didn't hear me, and I did not want to keep shouting. It turned out that I was standing in poison ivy anyway.

First, I want to make clear that I write to you with abiding respect and admiration. You yourself are a model citizen and a paragon of good neighborliness. The wall you put up between your property and ours was low and tasteful, and the rapidly growing trees you planted above the wall create a pastoral effect of complex light and shadow. You are tolerant of and even compassionate toward our dream of allowing our backyard to thrive wild and uncultivated; not "badly maintained" and "full of poison ivy," as one less charitable neighbor said at our recent block party -- where, I might add, we all regaled each other with accounts of seeing you walk your dog, drive your car, and bend over to pick up something that you had dropped.

What I love about you, Stephen, what makes me so proud to live, er, below you, is that you have turned seriousness on its head for the sake of an improved seriousness. I consider you, as well as Jon Stewart, your partner in comical crime, leaders of a new movement that I call anti-serious seriousness. As so many of the so-called serious people -- politicians, media commentators, experts of every stripe -- have become silly, your brand of sophisticated silliness amounts to a seriousness that exposes their lack of same. You are a megaphone for disheartened voices that never reach the exalted ears of power. You have joked about being America's resident advisor, but I'm glad that the country's teen-aged children are part of your audience. I'm glad the children are watching you.

Testifying last fall in the form of your persona before a Congressional sub-committee on immigration, you responded to a blunt question about what you were doing there. You replied, with a genuinely surprised awkwardness, "I like talking about people who don't have any power." That was the simple voice of outraged decency. I thought for a moment that someone was going to call the U.S. Capitol police! I think that such savage outrage is what whips you into lacerating, cathartic wit. Somewhere in the mists of history, a Colbert must have coupled with a Swift.

Still, if I may ask you -- and I tried shouting this to you again, over the wall, last Saturday, but you didn't hear me -- what exactly were you doing there? Except for that moment of truly moving sincerity, you used your testimony to do what you do best: make people laugh.

I know that you wanted to lend your satiric prestige to the cause of defending the rights of illegal immigrants. But laughter is cathartic, and catharsis is for art, not politics. Comedy didn't pave the way for universal suffrage or civil rights. Unappeasable anger did. Lenny Bruce's shticks didn't bring down McCarthy. Joe Welch's sincerity brought him down. The day you appeared before the sub-committee, you inadvertently turned the issue of illegal immigrants' rights into a joke.

If I may say so, your well-intentioned "testimony" that day wasn't remotely like your uniquely brilliant show, where the pomp, ceremony and gravitas of politics are reduced by a total Colbertized environment to their essential egotism, stupidity and greed. Rather, sitting before that sub-committee, you were encircled by the total environment of politics' pomp, ceremony and gravitas. Your satiric kingdom shrank to a township in the vast domain of power. You went, incredibly, from being a prince of lacerating truth to that kid who won't let other kids study. More than any comedian I know of, Stephen, you make laughter an instrument of attention. That day your laughter was merely a distraction. You were taunting power, not satirizing it. But the idea that mockery is all our politics deserves is what is killing our politics. It's why people take refuge in the phony principledness and the offended dignity of extremes.

So, as a devoted neighbor, I am imploring you to stand down from efforts involving your recently formed political action committee, which you created, so you have explained, to shine a spotlight on the recent Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to spend money in candidate elections. Your artistic intentions are bold and brave, honorable and hilarious, as they always are. But if you carry through your plan, not only will you run the risk of turning another burning issue into a cathartic prank. You will be offering ventilation for a lot of precious anger.

It's one thing to joke about politics. It's quite another to turn our mostly ludicrous, but occasionally effective politics into one big joke. Swift didn't become a sublimely mordant satirist until he left the corridors of English politics and power and returned to Ireland to live, as he wryly put it, like "a rat in a hole." Dear sublimely mordant neighbor -- it thrills me that we hear the same cicadas, the same tweeting birds, the same stump-grinders! -- you are one of the very few people who speak the naked, stinging truth to penalizing power. Please keep stinging the absurdities of our politics. Please don't amplify them.

Because if you do magnify the worst of our politics, you will risk undermining your own shtick. You will become the target of your own satire. What we all cherish about you is that you expose an insular political world where the fix is always in, and where one hand is always secretly washing the other. But just yesterday, lo and behold, there was New York Times media columnist David Carr writing an adoring puff-piece about your recent PAC antics, quoting several "experts" praising you to the skies. Yet what the knuckle-rapping enforcer of journalistic standards didn't honestly disclose was that he is also your Montclair neighbor, as well as a sometime guest on your show. Talk about a breach of ethics. Tsk, tsk, David. I banish you from Whole Foods from now until Labor Day.

Stephen, don't let yourself be drawn into the same queasy quid pro quo you so masterfully mock on your show.

Before I send this letter off, Stephen, I am going to try to shout out to you one more time and ask you to desist from your political prank. I think I might even venture to climb over your wall and push my way through your trees onto your yard. But for heaven's sake, if you find that a tad too confrontational, don't call the police. My children will be watching.

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