Stephen Colbert doesn't know what e-cigarettes are, but he knows that he is supposed to have an opinion about them. In fact, his opinion should be so impassioned that he is expected to defend it tooth and nail.
Or at least that's what the boob tube tells him to do.
"I was just walking by the TV just a moment ago, and CNN had up, 'The buzz on the e-cigarette,' and you had people debating e-cigarettes and I thought, 'What's an e-cigarette and why do I care?'" Colbert says. "But if I had just accepted what was on the screen, I would feel like an idiot for not making that a priority."
For the record, we don't know what e-cigarettes are either. In fact, it's the first we've heard of them.
This week, Colbert returns to his hometown of Charleston for a fundraiser for the James W. Colbert Endowed Chair, a post created at the Medical University of South Carolina in honor of his father. But right now, the noted political comedian is not talking about the fundraiser or his successful Comedy Central television show, The Colbert Report. He's talking about the tragic state of American politics and the even more tragic state of cable news and the senseless debates that make up most of its content.
When it comes to this sordid world, it doesn't matter if there's a diehard Democrat on one side and an unrepentant Republican on the other or a Team Edward teeny in one corner and a Team Jacob tweener in the other; the debate is overheated and its participants are uncompromising.
"The assumption is made that what they are talking about is important and urgent," Colbert says. "After 9/11, there was a constant state of urgency. Everything was a breaking news story. Everything deserves to be in the crawl in the lower third."
He adds, "Unless you put a lot of critical thought into watching news shows, every story you get sucked into as if it's this dire issue, and because this is a dire issue, you feel as if you have to take passionate sides in it when in fact there might be some subtle middle ground. And because there is only so much news in a 24-hour cycle and they have to fill the whole thing up with opinion, you have to have strong opinions in order to make it more dramatic, and that just leads to more assumptions that what they are talking about is important because you have such dramatic passion on both sides."
And to make matters worse, the folks engaging in the debate will never budge. In fact, they do little more than shout regurgitated talking points at each other.
In part, we are to blame. We view national politics as a form of Vince McMahon-sponsored sports entertainment, a cage match between a heel (the villain) and the face (the hero), although who exactly is the heel and who is the face no one can ever agree. Of course, there's a reason they can't speak honestly. Colbert says, "They have a financial and career interest in holding to a party line regardless of what the facts are, left and right."
We're looking at you, Paul Begala and James Carville, Alex Castellanos and Mary Matalin.
Colbert argues that the very nature of cable news is what has created this nonstop showdown. "The fact that the national news networks have to deal with national stories all the time so that a national audience will pay attention to it just leads to a greater blurring of any greater details and obfuscation of what is actually happening on the ground in exchange for a purity of opinion that can be expressed in small bites," he says. "It leads to greater divisiveness."
According to Colbert, we are focusing far too much on national politics when we should be looking more locally. After all, what politicians do at home impacts us far more than what politicians do in Washington. "Because on a national level you have to draw these firm lines in the sand because you're trying to move such a big beast. You cannot be subtle, and you cannot be responsive to what the actual needs on the ground are," the comedian says. "Whereas in local politics, you have to pay attention because the person whose need is or is not being fulfilled or whose problem is or is not being addressed or whose freedom is or is not being allowed or guaranteed is right there in front of you. You have to pay attention to the details."
And pay attention he does to the never-ending series of political shenanigans that go on across the nation and, well, closer to home. "Between Mark [Sanford]'s excitement of a few years ago and Joe Wilson and Jim DeMint's constant gifts, the national debate, and Nikki Haley calling her emergency session and getting slapped down by the Supreme Court, there's always plenty to think about," Colbert says.
However, The Colbert Report host has plenty of affection for South Carolina. "The problem is that I really like my home state. I don't necessarily want to make jokes at its expense or at the expense of its residents. My favorite joke that I've ever made about the state is prompting the fact it produces more peaches than Georgia and how dare Georgia get the name the Peach State," he says. "I would much rather make jokes about being a proud South Carolinian than digging in on its political foibles."
Surprisingly, there was one South Carolina story that Colbert refused to touch: the sudden and strange appearance of Alvin Greene. "I never covered it," Colbert says. "I just scratched my head at it. It just seemed sad, so I never even talked about it on the show. I don't think I made one joke about it."
During our short talk with Colbert, we were surprised at how serious and sincere he seems to be. He rarely came across as sarcastic or cynical, which is drastically different from his over-the-top television persona. In fact, we were surprised when he admitted that life in one of the bluest of blue states might be a little blue — and by little we mean just a teeny bit. After all, Colbert has a career that more than one liberal Southerner dreams of.
"If I could do what I do there, I would do it in a moment," Colbert says. "I love the people, I love the place, I love the culture. I don't always agree with it, but I love it. It just feels like home in my bones."
He adds, "The moment the pine trees start getting matchsticks and the ground gets flat and the humidity becomes oppressive, I just get happy."