A hot dog vending cart was wheeled back and forth. Cocktail waitress hurried past with trays full of beer. Vice President Joe Biden led New York Yankees great Yogi Berra by the arm.
Such was the bizarre, red-white-and-blue circus backstage at comedian Stephen Colbert's celebration of US troops' return from Iraq. The Comedy Central host pulled out all the stops Wednesday night for the first part of his two-episode special, "Been There: Won That: The Returnification of the American-Do Troopscape." It was a somewhat rare show of exultation to what President Barack Obama has called the end of combat operations in Iraq. Some 50,000 troops remain in the Middle East country, where local forces have a tenuous hold on security. Fighting in Afghanistan also continues.
Those truths were never far from "The Colbert Report" on Wednesday, but Colbert made the evening's tone clear at the start. "I'm not going to debate this war," said Colbert, in mock pundit character. "It's been seven years. Who can remember who invaded who?"
Instead he declared: "Tonight is for the troops." The show's studio audience was packed with active troops and veterans, whom Colbert lavished with hot dogs, beer and ice cream. Biden played the part of hot dog vendor. Gen. Ray Odierno, the outgoing US military commander in Iraq, donned a toupee of Colbert's hair. (Odierno famously shaved Colbert's head on Obama's orders when the comedian broadcast four episodes of "The Report" from Baghdad last year.)
Colbert opened the show atop a tank, which rolled down the street outside his show's Manhattan studio. Colbert, looking more at home than Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis did in 1988, pretended to shoot the letter C on a nearby building with the tank's guns.
"Jay Leno doesn't have one of these," said Colbert, patting the tank with pride.
Colbert may parody conservatives, but his support of the men and women in the military is unwavering. He has raised thousands of dollars for the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a charity that assists injured service members and their families, and he's a board member of DonorsChoose.org, which is raising money for the education of children of parents in the military.
"Sometimes," Colbert said earlier to The Associated Press, "my character and I agree."
But for all the over-the-top celebration of Wednesday's show, Colbert continually highlighted the paradox of reveling in a war not fully over.
He asked Odierno whether a noncombat troop was "a mime troop" and had the general acknowledge soldiers still in Iraq are receiving combat pay. He wondered if Iraq was "the war that cried, 'Over."' And he joked that if you could tell the difference between a noncombat troop and a combat troop, "Then you're the president of America."
Live satellite feeds to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were piped in, as well.
Colbert even trotted out Berra, the Yankees' catcher of the 1950s, as the show's "conflict analyst." Berra announced his predictable analysis: "Stephen, it ain't over till it's over." Biden didn't try to claim otherwise. He said the war in Iraq won't be over until there's "a political solution." "This is a milestone, but we're not there yet," he said. Colbert coaxed the vice president into looking into the camera to thank former President George W. Bush for honoring the members of the military.
Inside the studio, "The Colbert Report" similarly heaped reverence for the troops and their sacrifice. A stage manager, awed at their immediate response to cues to stand or sit, wished every audience could be so compliant.
On the whole, politics were kept out of it.
Before morphing into character, Colbert took questions from his uniformed audience. Asked to which political party he was registered, he replied, "None of your business," before confessing he wasn't registered to any party. Asked if he voted for Obama in 2008, he replied, "Are there any other questions?"
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