Separating Comedy from the Truthiness

Between O'Donnell's absurdities and Colbert's surreal Congressional testimony, who knows what to believe?

Comedian Bill Maher, whose airing of an old clip in which Christine O'Donnell’s reminisces about "dabbling into witchcraft" brought her a week of ridicule, took aim again at the Republican U.S. Senate candidate Friday.

This time, he showed two snippets – one real, one fake. See if you can tell which chestnut O’Donnell really uttered during a late 1990s appearance on "Politically Incorrect":

Choice A: "In college, we used to get pregnant all the time on purpose so we could sell the stem cells"

Choice B: "Evolution is a myth...Why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans?"

Either answer would be pretty frightening, not only to many voters in Delaware, but no doubt to some Republican leaders fed up with the latest Tea Party honey.

Maher’s clever juxtaposition of the real and the fake highlights a growing trend: it's getting harder in these politically torn times to separate comedy from the truth – or, in the case of Stephen Colbert, from the truthiness.

Hours before "Real Time with Bill Maher" aired on HBO, the host of "The Colbert Report" testified – under oath and in character – before Congress in a performance as brilliant as it was surreal.

Colbert's testimony about the plight of migrant farm workers followed a segment on his show last week where he spent a day picking beans and packing corn on an upstate New York farm. He made clear – even through the bluster of his egotistical conservative persona – where he stands.

“We have to do something because I am not going back out there,” Colbert told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Farm Labor. “At this point, I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar.”

Colbert didn't get a ton of laughs from the Washington audience – much like his controversial in-person mocking of then-President George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ dinner. But the jokes weren’t the point during Friday's at-times uncomfortable hearing. Colbert was willing to play the awkward clown for a cause. (“I certainly hope that my star power can pump this hearing all the way up to C-Span 1,” he said).

But does Colbert risk shedding some of his comic cred by going from observer to participant?

As we noted previously, Colbert and his Comedy Central tag-team partner Jon Stewart already are blurring the line between comedy and political action with their planned dual Washington rally on Oct. 30, just three days before the midterm elections. The event is a clear knock at Glenn Beck's August "Rally to Restore Honor," whose best punchlines included the Fox News host’s insistence that the gathering (with guest star Sarah Palin) wasn't political.

We’ll reserve further comment until seeing exactly what Colbert and Stewart have in store next month at their dueling “Rally to Restore Sanity” (Stewart) and “March to Keep Fear Alive” (Colbert) on the National Mall.

But there’s little doubt we're seeing a shifting of roles for comedians at a time when the sad state of politics is proving inherently comical – or as New York magazine sardonically put it in the headline of a recent profile of Stewart: “America is a Joke.” Whether Colbert and Stewart are headed in a risky direction or the rally is just part of the natural evolution of the careers of two of our top political satirists isn't yet clear.

Speaking of evolution, the real "Politically Incorrect" clip is the one in which O'Donnell 12 years ago postulated that Darwin was wrong because monkeys aren't turning into humans. Even if you want to chalk her comments up to relative youth, she more recently (in 2007) complained to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly about the supposed breeding of mice with human brains.

You can decide whether to laugh or cry at the sad and funny truth.

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Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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