I Am America (and So Can You!)

On the title page of the galleys of this ironically strident, annoying, repetitive, dishonest, priggish, self-congratulatory, exploitational, celebrity-driven, offensive — and often extremely funny — book, it says, in the credits, “Additional material: Ipsum Lorem.” Do you know what that means? Well, I do — now, A.G. (After Google). It’s a two-word snip of dummy text — meaningless Latin-sounding words used from the 1500s to this day by typesetters, to give the appearance of printed words without the distraction of real content.

Some word sleuth figured out that it is a deliberate corruption of a passage from Cicero. Something about there being no one who seeks pain solely for itself. I don’t know if “Ipsum Lorem” will make it to the finished book of Stephen Colbert’s I Am America (and So Can You!) — a book of pseudo-reactionary rants, spoofs, and diatribes organized by topic — but here’s some more of the venerable dummy it comes from: “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt.”

Why did I do that? There’s nothing reviewistic about it — it’s just a passage of nonsense that won’t even be in the book. Oh no! I figured it out. Talk about infectious humor! It looks as though I’ve been bitten by the relentless money bug that afflicts I Am America, because I’m getting paid by the word for this piece, so I say again, Ipsum Lorem ($2.00). Well, $3.00. $5.00. Etc.

The profit motive, however affected, is to I Am America as cheese is to a grilled-cheese sandwich. Just a few examples: “For the record,” Colbert says early on, “We’re not offering this book to libraries. No free rides.” Later: “Cool it with the exclamation marks. The cost of this ink comes out of my advance.” Later: “Buy five extra copies of my book as gifts.” And at the end: “I Am America (and So Can You!). And you can take that to the bank. I know I will.”

It’s only fitting that comic capitalism forms the center of this book, because, as millions and millions of fans know by now, Mr. Colbert’s satirical persona on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report takes off from the rhetoric of the super-patriotic right-wing pundits who populate the overheated dens of Fox News and other anti-intellectual sanctuaries. When he interviews liberals, he faux-lampoons them. When he interviews conservatives, he murders them with their own weapons. This own-petard-hoisting technique is perhaps best illustrated by Colbert’s infamous 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner speech, reprinted in I Am America. It was one of the bravest — and therefore, of course, most widely deplored — political acts of this benighted young century. “No matter what happens to America,” he says, “she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”

The pixel-to-page transplant of this persona is basically a success. I Am America artfully re-creates Mr. Colbert’s dry, martinet-like sendups of the Cro-Magnon politics and “values” of the far right. (Not only the far right but, by implicit extension, of all punditry — everyone who has fashioned his personality or his “image” around his ideology.) “Artfully” is painting the lily a little for a product like this. The word “product” will not offend Mr. Colbert — it will make him proud. Arranged in three general categories — Childhood, Adolescence, and Maturity, none of which, I am pleased to say, really mean much — individual chapters hit such subjects as “The American Family,” “Old People,” “Religion,” “Higher Education,” “Class,” “Race,” and “Science” very hard over the head. At the end there’s a “Note to the Future,” in which the author chastises humans for allowing apes to take over the world and gives instructions for thawing his head.

Along with these elevated and recondite scholarly investigations are mini-font italic snappers in the margins — “moths, get a publicist,” Colbert suggests, after explaining how the motion of a butterfly’s wing can have large consequences on the other side of the world. Raising the mercenary drumbeat of this book to a crescendo, there are coupons for Colbert brand-name items, and the “Sport Chapter” is sponsored by Chevron and then, rather suddenly, by Kraft Seven Seas Creamy Italian salad dressing. Charts, illustrations, photographs, “Fun Zones,” and puzzles permeate these pages, too, ensuring that the reader’s “reading experience” will not too closely approach…reading. As it should not, since Mr. Colbert begins his Introduction, “I am no fan of books. This is first book I’ve ever written, and I hope it’s the first book you’ve ever read. Don’t make a habit of it.” (An example of the book’s exquisite and subtle photography: in the chapter on religion, under the heading “Quakers,” a very small reproduction of the Quaker Oats photograph of Benjamin Franklin appears alongside the highly economical comment “These folks produced only two things I like — Oatmeal and Richard Nixon.”) And in sidebars entitled “Stephen Speaks for Me,” ordinary citizens who, thank God, don’t exist and better not endorse and cheer Mr. Colbert. One is “Gill Honeycomb,” the oldest man in the world, who hits random keys at the end of his note of gratitude, and then, apparently dead, slumps forward with “ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff.”

So I Am America will give its readers — purchasers, perhaps I should say — what they want, and, even if the joke-to-sentence ratio sometimes exceeds Borscht Belt levels, that is a good thing, and unusual in these days of unsatisfying compulsive shopping. (Look up Marcuse on B&N.com.) There’s no way around saying that Jon Stewart’s America: The Book is just a little better and more surprising than this one. (There’s no way around it because to some extent Mr. Colbert and his Report and this book are the spawn of Stewart and his show and his book…) It sounds the trumpet of profit a little less blaringly, and, like Mr. Stewart’s facial expressions vis-?-vis Mr. Colbert’s, it has more variation than does I Am America. The academic corrections and comments interspersed throughout America: The Book, made with a refreshingly straight face, while funny themselves, are also particularly effective comedy breathers. And if Mr. Colbert thinks there should have been a way around saying that about his book versus Stewart’s, he can have me on his show and tell me what it was. Oh, please?

As is his entire show and on-camera demeanor, I Am America is a comic cri de coeur from Stephen Colbert’s character. Even more gnawing than the satirical dollar lust in its pages is another kind, camouflaged in a deliberately ineffective way — Colbert’s professed homophobia. Or, I should say, “Colbert’s” “homophobia.” Forget the per-word stuff: If air quotes were money, this review would make me rich. Everywhere you look, even outside the chapter on homosexuality, there are hilarious mock denunciations of this perfectly honorable orientation. For instance, Colbert is at excruciating pains to prove that God is not gay: if He were, “He would have turned Adam’s rib into Dermot Mulroney.” And Jesus “turned water into wine, not Appletinis.”

The pseudo-repulsion in these pages toward homosexuality is so, um, big and, er, hard that the conclusion is obvious: Stephen Colbert wants us to realize that “Stephen Colbert” is gay. And, clearly, in serious, repressive denial. He opens the closet door just enough to make sure we don’t miss the lonely, cowering figure within: “Your little gay fantasy proves my point,” he says at the beginning of the “Homosexuals” chapter and continues, “Every single one of us fights a daily battle to suppress the insurgency raging in our loins.” He — or is it “he”? — speaks disturbingly of the need for humans to “dominate” animals. Let’s put the best construction on this concept and stay away from the horrifying worst: We’ll just assume that this is Colbert’s way of saying that he favors pitching to catching. Clearly, this is a faux right-winger knocking on the partition of a men’s-room stall and yearning to appraise cloisonn? on Antiques Road Show. And ultimately, and admirably, this wonderful actor is making fun of everyone who retreats from his nature into a false identity. This is what is so salubrious about Colbert’s comedy, and what distinguishes him from many other comics.

Stephen’s persona, Stephen’s persona, Stephen’s persona! I hope you don’t mind my own persona calling you Stephen’s, but don’t get any funny ideas. You really have to have my just-now-mentioned own persona on your show. It’s either that or go to Oprah as your confessor. But I don’t think you want to inflate her already grotesque ratings even more. I admire you and your book — it’s really funny and smart and breezily e-z reading — and I think you have earned the right to be who you really “are,” and to be happy, and to be even better than Stewart. As Cicero said, more or less, there is no one who seeks pain for the sake of pain. And as I Am America heads ineluctably toward the bestseller lists, I feel I really must get a little piece of the action, and therefore I repeat, “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.”