Fort Lewis soldier Frank Grippe walked on stage with his M-4 rifle in hand. The reaction of the host across the desk – a faux right-winger wearing a camouflage suit and a fresh buzzcut – was one of mock terror.
“Don’t touch that gun,” Stephen Colbert said. “I’m a friendly, I’m a friendly.”
The crowd of hundreds of service members giggled. Grippe, the command sergeant major for Fort Lewis-based I Corps, cracked a smile.
Welcome to “The Colbert Report,” Iraq-style. The Comedy Central show featuring a self-important talking head – the credits list the host as Sir Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, DFA – spent a week with troops in Iraq. Many of the hundreds in the audience are serving in Baghdad with Fort Lewis-based I Corps, which is running daily operations for the military in Iraq.
Colbert has said he made the trip to draw attention to a war that has dropped off the map of public consciousness – and to the troops who are still serving there. His visit comes just months before two Fort Lewis Stryker brigades, totaling some 8,000 soldiers, will deploy to Iraq.
But the comedian also plainly took his show on the road for laughs, in a manner more subversive – and on a larger media stage – than what Bob Hope did on the USO tours of previous generations.
For some military leaders, it can be tricky to know just how far to play along with the joke.
“I can play around a little bit,” Grippe told The News Tribune, “but you can’t play around too much with a high-discipline force on world TV.”
The tour, organized by the USO, was a great distraction, Grippe told The News Tribune by phone Friday. He and corps commander Lt. Gen Charles Jacoby sat for interviews, and hundreds more were in the audience for the tapings. Colbert also shook hands and chatted with service members after the cameras were off.
“His audience really fits the demographics of a lot of people in the military today,” said Grippe, a 46-year-old New York native. “They’re all about Steve.”
Colbert broadcast from the Al Faw Palace, a hulking marble building in Baghdad. The palace is home to Multi-National Corps-Iraq, which has been run since April by I Corps and its nearly 1,000 Fort Lewis troops.
Many guests never know what to expect; Colbert will ask playful questions, and then follow with a hardball. He has tricked congressmen into shotgunning beers or talking about their love of cocaine and prostitutes.
His guests last week didn’t quite find themselves in that scenario, but Colbert tried.
“Frank, you do a lot of different kinds of work,” he told Grippe. “You work with infantry soldiers, you help train the Iraqi people, you confer with generals. But I’m gonna guess that some of the stuff you do is stuff you can’t talk about.”
“Every so often,” Grippe answered.
“Tell me about that stuff.”
Grippe didn’t miss a beat: “I can’t tell you that,” he said as the audience chuckled.
The host later persuaded Grippe to call the service members in the audience to attention and order them to “put their right hand in.” When Colbert asked Grippe to order them to “take your right hand out,” the command sergeant major’s patience seemed spent. He stopped barking out the orders.
Cue Colbert’s mock horror.
“You can’t get them to do the hokey-pokey?” Colbert asked. “What kind of commander are you?”
Instead, I Corps’ top noncommissioned officer led the hundreds in the audience in the Army song.
The week was spent interviewing generals and Joes, cracking jokes about military life and playing video greetings from political leaders.
They know Colbert is a force not to be ignored. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. John McCain, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all made cameos, with brief video “shout-outs” to the troops.
Colbert delivered his monologues in front of a large, standup microphone while carrying a wooden golf driver, in homage to Bob Hope. In true self-aggrandizing style, the week of shows was billed as “Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando.”
On the first night, he declared victory in Iraq. Minutes later, the top American military commander in the country, Gen. Ray Odierno, shaved Colbert’s head.
When Jacoby sat down, Colbert tried to goad the Fort Lewis commander into taking credit for U.S. successes in Iraq.
“Sir, let’s get something straight right away here: You work under Gen. Odierno, but between you and me, you do all the work,” Colbert said.
“No, no, I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “He’s got the tough job. I’ve got a fun job. Gen. Odierno’s gotta deal with politicians and agencies in other countries. I get to spend my day with these guys right here.”
Colbert and Jacoby then discussed the daily aspects of the general’s job. That naturally led to one question: “You manage the 130,000 soldiers. Who’s your favorite?”
“That one right there,” Jacoby deadpanned and pointed to a random soldier in the crowd. “I got him a front-row seat.”
And, as usual, Colbert struck on a bit of a deeper truth. He asked Jacoby how the military could apply what it learned from its successes in Iraq to Afghanistan. The general started his answer by pointing out the vast differences between the two wars.
“Afghanistan and Iraq are totally different places, different cultures, different histories,” he said.
“I did not know that,” Colbert interrupted to laughter. “That’s good to know. To me and most Americans, it’s just a not-here, over-there kind of place. I thought it was near Paraguay.”
The logistics of the show were “a handful” at times, said Spc. Will Roberts of Fort Lewis. The 22-year-old Colorado native worked with the network’s advance crew that arrived weeks earlier to scout the set, set up the stage, ensure that the palace acoustics worked for TV, and broadcast the show back to the U.S. each night.
Comedy Central broadcast each show one day after it was taped in Baghdad, an unusually fast turnaround. The tapings allowed the troops to spend plenty of time with both versions of Stephen Colbert – the actor and the character.
“I had a chance to ask Stephen Colbert what he would think about Stephen Colbert coming to Iraq,” Roberts said. “He answered he’s surprised that Stephen Colbert would be so courageous.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758