Stephen Colbert pokes fun at Iowa TV station

Des Moines television station WOI-TV was the object of Stephen Colbert's pointed humor on “The Colbert Report.” / SPECIAL TO THE REGISTER

From my work in the pages of the Locust Street Paragraph Factory:

WOI-TV may be last in local news audience in the central Iowa market, but it’s first in national punch lines.

Comedian Stephen Colbert has twice mocked the Des Moines ABC-TV affiliate on his Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report.”

Why he’s doing this takes some explanation, so bear with us.

On his TV show, Colbert plays an ultra-conservative pundit named, conveniently enough, Stephen Colbert. As part of the gag, Colbert created a real political action committee called Americans for a Better Tomorrow Tomorrow. (The repeated wording is his. It’s funny. Ask Colbert. He’ll tell you.)

Colbert’s political action committee did what political action committees do and bought ads on TV. The ad encouraged voters to write in Rick Parry in the Republican straw poll in Ames. Parry should not be confused with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is running for president but didn’t announce his candidacy until the same weekend as the straw poll.

KCCI-TV and WHO-TV in Des Moines played along and ran the ad. WOI rejected it. Station brass at WOI thought the ad would be confusing to viewers. They might have a point.

If you’re keeping score at home, a fake conservative commentator tried to place a satirical ad on real TV stations before the straw poll, which brings lots of attention to Iowa but has no official place in the Republican presidential nomination process. It’s all very postmodern.

A political scientist at Drake University who teaches a class on political satire has been amused by Colbert’s antics but thinks WOI has a point.

“This whole thing is like the cool kids playing a prank, and one stand-up kid says, ‘OK, this has gone too far,’ ” said Rachel Paine Caufield, associate professor of political science. “They might be doing the right thing, but they’re not going to be cool.”

Colbert made fun of the rejection on his TV show last week. He made fun of the station’s low standing in the ratings. He picked on reporter Katie Eastman’s stories about a local dog park and garage sales.

Ray Cole, president of Citadel Communications, which owns WOI, wasn’t laughing. He’s a Colbert fan, but he believes the station made the right decision not to run the ad.

“This was a close call for us,” Cole said Tuesday. “Our instincts are to grant access to our airwaves to qualified parties. We just felt this was too confusing. The straw poll isn’t a real election, but … it has a real impact.”

Cole got Colbert on the phone. (That was more than The Des Moines Register could do Tuesday, despite our best efforts.) The two ironed things out, and Cole even pointed out the two had met a couple of times, including at the 2008 Emmy Awards, where Colbert won his first Emmy.

In the show that aired Monday night, Colbert apologized. Sort of. Colbert said they met in the bathroom, and then the comedian made a series of bathroom jokes. Colbert said Cole had held Colbert’s Emmy, “and when you’ve touched my Emmy, you’ve touched the best part of me.”

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