Funny Ha Ha? (YURI GRIPAS)

But his appearance before the FEC Thursday was the rare case when he provoked more confusion than laughter — generally not a good sign.

It is so hard to tell if anyone is joking these days. As a general rule, Stephen Colbert is always joking. Tracy Morgan is either joking or apologizing. And the Federal Election Commission? Who knows! Perhaps all campaign finance law is a joke.

Still, for a rogue band of pranksters, the FEC is a traditionally staid and rather under-scrutinized body. Thursday it ruled that Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert could start a Super PAC and that it was legal for Viacom, parent company of Comedy Central, to make in-kind contributions (such as video ads) provided they did not air outside Colbert’s show.

For anyone else who read that sentence and responded by mumbling, “Huh, whaa?” Stephen Colbert, who likes to mount fake campaigns for president to satirize the system, is at it again. This time he sought to create a SuperPAC to poke fun at lax campaign finance laws that treat corporations as people whose feelings will be hurt if they cannot express themselves freely, generally by donating large amounts of money to political candidates.

But the plot thickened. Colbert’s show would promote his “candidacy” — and how would that impact the PAC, given the rules of campaign finance law?

And as the plot thickened, the joke became harder and harder to see.

Colbert’s efforts to seek a “press exemption” — the same exemption that allows us to follow Sarah Palin everywhere she goes, taking a lot of flattering pictures, and not be required to report these as in-kind contributions because we are under the delusion that we are reporting the news — wound up raising serious concerns. Many worried, as The Atlantic’s Sarah Mimms noted, that “Granting the exemption would produce what the reformers called ‘a sweeping and damaging impact on disclosure laws,’ which would allow media companies to fund employees’ political activities anonymously. Politicians who are employed by media companies could use their television shows as platforms to raise unlimited funds for their PACs, without having to disclose doing so, the reform groups said.” In fact, Colbert’s own lawyer in the case, Trevor Potter, is generally in charge of an organization that filed to complain that his press exemption would create a dangerous precedent for other candidates lucky enough to combine a cable show with a PAC.

At a certain point, the line between mockery and reality blurs.

Under the current system, candidates must hire high-powered lawyers to sift through arcane regulations and testify before the FEC before corporations can begin to fling sacks of money at the candidates. So to make fun of it, Colbert hired a lawyer to sift through arcane regulations and testify before the FEC, so now large corporations can fling him sacks of money ironically.

I guess we all won?

I can’t imagine that next time someone seeks a press exemption the FEC will shoot it down with the note, “Last time it was only okay because Colbert was joking.” The commissioners approached the question seriously.

Colbert said almost nothing during the testimony, which was somewhat dull, probably to the immense relief of the two people who usually go to FEC meetings because their Lunesta has not kicked in yet. When it was over he went back to jovially collecting money.

The real joke here is campaign finance law. I am relieved that so many of the FEC decisions wind up in 3-3 ties. If even they can’t agree on what the law is trying to tell us, then I certainly am off the hook! The laws are an arcane morass that seems calculated to keep Actual Human Beings Who Don’t Have High-Powered Lawyers out of the process. Maybe this was Colbert’s point. But on Thursday, it got lost.

This may be why a good general rule of satire is that you should probably stop before you are required to testify before the FEC.

The best satire is the kind that is clearly identifiable as such.

This has gotten far too muddled. And not only didn’t the testimony make anyone laugh, its outcome might quickly cease to be funny.