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Posted at 03:19 PM ET, 01/20/2012

Newt Gingrich, Stephen Colbert, and how to be a joke candidate


The face that launched a thousand quips. (YURI GRIPAS)
Charleston, S.C. — The rally goes splendidly. There is a marching band, a gospel choir, and an enthusiastic crowd of hundreds spilling around the block. Everyone is ebullient, carrying hand-made signs. The band plays ”Party Rockin’ In The House Tonight.” The crowd cheers. There is excitement in the air. It's positively electric! What a crowd to have the day before the South Carolina primaries! No wonder this state is the first in the South! It’s so warm! So exuberant! This is a powerful statement about the process!

Oh, the actual candidates? I thought you wanted me to talk about the Stephen Colbert/Herman Cain rally. It went stupendously. The only slow point was when Herman Cain attempted to talk about actual Republican politics. (“Bring back Colbert!" someone yelled.)

It turns out that Herman Cain’s schtick plays far better for the Tea Party than it does for a crowd of college students skipping class on Friday to see one of their favorite TV characters. Being the funniest, most exciting guy in the GOP field is like being the wildest nun in the convent. It seems meaningful until you get out.

But you no doubt want to hear what the Real Frontrunners are up to.

Things are not going so well. Take Newt Gingrich. Across town, a few minutes before the Colbert rally, Gingrich is standing under a clown-shaped windsock, being ignored by a dozen children.

This is the Atrium of the MUSC Children’s Hospital, a room consecrated to play. “The Atrium is designed to meet the play and activity needs of children, teens, and their families during hospitalization,” a laminated brochure informs me. “We recognize that a hospital stay can be stressful and upsetting. The opportunity to play is normal, familiar, and comforting. Play and activities can assist children and families to cope positively with the hospital experience.”

It says nothing in the materials about the possibility of being exposed to Newt Gingrich, no matter how stressful and upsetting that might be.

And the children don’t seem to mind. They don’t seem to care. At worst, they appear mildly put out. One of them is playing with a pirate ship. Across the room, Callista Gingrich and a dazed-looking person in an elephant suit are reading a book about elephants out loud to a small gang of kids. One senses that if Newt had been given reading duties, they would have had to sit through David Copperfield.

The children, corralled together next to a pile of plastic dinosaurs, seem polite but bored. It’s an expression South Carolinians master at an early age. One of them, a little girl in a pink Barbie ensemble, finally can take no more and wanders off to start beating a drum. Campaign aides glance nervously at her.

Across town, students are already lining up to touch the hem of Colbert’s robe.

One of them packed the yard and earned enthusiastic applause. The other sat in the middle of a hospital bothering a group of children who would really rather have played with the wooden pirate ship.

Remind me which one is the joke candidate.

Of course, this is a little unfair. Nothing draws crowds like having a rally on Friday afternoon on a college campus. What else is everyone going to do? Go to class? And the Colbert crowd was a very different crowd; college students are traditionally a somewhat less than conservative bunch, in the sense that a Category 4 hurricane is traditionally somewhat less than dry. They booed Nikki Haley. Jokes that sailed over gloriously with the Tea Party fizzled in the face of Colbert boosters. “America is broke!” Cain said, recycling some material from his speech yesterday to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. The crowd yawned. A dog barked.

Colbert's speech was an able parody of the verbiage on the campaign trail. What was most startling was how little it differed from the things actual candidates said. “I don’t need to pander to the most beautiful people in the world,” he noted at one point. Squint at him and Cain, and it looks almost like a real campaign. Cain makes an excellent bridge from the absurdity of the real campaign to the only slightly noisier quirks of the Avowed Parodies. Now he’s a joke who knows he’s a joke, a clothesless emperor still out strutting his stuff.

One’s a Serious Political Process. The other, a parody. Which one's funnier?

You don’t know what fun is, some would argue, until you have seen Newt Gingrich stand near a pile of plastic dinosaurs as Callista reads some children a book about elephants.

Finally the elephant book ends and the grim procession of cameras and notebooks and Gingrich and handlers makes its way out of the hospital.

It’s a lot more fun across town. There, they laugh with you.

By  |  03:19 PM ET, 01/20/2012

 
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