There used to be just two Stephen Colberts, and they were hard enough to distinguish. The main difference was that one thought the other was an idiot. The idiot Colbert was the one who made a nice paycheck by appearing four times a week on “The Colbert Report” (pronounced in the French fashion, with both t’s silent), the extremely popular fake news show on Comedy Central. The other Colbert, the non-idiot, was the 47-year-old South Carolinian, a practicing Catholic, who lives with his wife and three children in suburban Montclair, N.J., where, according to one of his neighbors, he is “extremely normal.” One of the pleasures of attending a live taping of “The Colbert Report” is watching this Colbert transform himself into a Republican superhero.
Suburban Colbert comes out dressed in the other Colbert’s guise — dark two-button suit, tasteful Brooks Brothersy tie, rimless Rumsfeldian glasses — and answers questions from the audience for a few minutes. (The questions are usually about things like Colbert’s favorite sport or favorite character from “The Lord of the Rings,” but on one memorable occasion a young black boy asked him, “Are you my father?” Colbert hesitated a moment and then said, “Kareem?”) Then he steps onstage, gets a last dab of makeup while someone sprays his hair into an unmussable Romney-like helmet, and turns himself into his alter ego. His body straightens, as if jolted by a shock. A self-satisfied smile creeps across his mouth, and a manically fatuous gleam steals into his eyes.
Lately, though, there has emerged a third Colbert. This one is a version of the TV-show Colbert, except he doesn’t exist just on screen anymore. He exists in the real world and has begun to meddle in it. In 2008, the old Colbert briefly ran for president, entering the Democratic primary in his native state of South Carolina. (He hadn’t really switched parties, but the filing fee for the Republican primary was too expensive.) In 2010, invited by Representative Zoe Lofgren, he testified before Congress about the problem of illegal-immigrant farmworkers and remarked that “the obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables.”
But those forays into public life were spoofs, more or less. The new Colbert has crossed the line that separates a TV stunt from reality and a parody from what is being parodied. In June, after petitioning the Federal Election Commission, he started his own super PAC — a real one, with real money. He has run TV ads, endorsed (sort of) the presidential candidacy of Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, and almost succeeded in hijacking and renaming the Republican primary in South Carolina. “Basically, the F.E.C. gave me the license to create a killer robot,” Colbert said to me in October, and there are times now when the robot seems to be running the television show instead of the other way around.