Colbert arrived at the former Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory on Friday. For weeks, he's promoted the trip on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," but because the military urged caution, he has only trumpeted a vague trip to "the Persian Gulf."
The series of shows, each to be taped in front of an audience of about 450 troops, have been dubbed "Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando." It's the first time anyone has broadcast from Iraq for a USO tour.
Though Colbert has often infused his mock pundit character into real events — the 2008 election, the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association dinner — his Iraq trip isn't a parody.
Both the character Colbert and the real Colbert, a Catholic family man, are ardent supporters of the troops. He has raised hundreds of 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 benefits the schools of military kids.
"Sometimes my character and I agree," Colbert said in an interview at his Manhattan office before leaving for Baghdad. "My character and I both know the Apostles' Creed and my character and I both think it's a shame that we're not talking about the troops anymore."
The trip came about when former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West suggested it after an interview last July on "The Colbert Report."
"He gave me this big ol' manly handshake and said, 'If Gen. Petraeus invited you to do your show from Iraq, would you do it?'" recalled Colbert. "And I thought, 'Oh, an improviser would say yes without thinking.'"
Colbert was in the midst of the hectic presidential campaign coverage, but once the election passed, he checked back on the invitation — this time with Gen. Raymond Odierno, the current commander of the forces in Iraq.
After months of planning, "The Colbert Report" is sending about 30 production staff (a third of the show's regular staff) to Iraq. The production restraints are steep, but Colbert is planning to do four shows, which will air Monday through Thursday next week at 11:30 p.m. EDT.
Colbert prepared for the trip by visiting Fort Jackson, S.C., for a very abbreviated basic training. He also drew on help from Tom Hanks to gather care packages for the troops. Guests on the shows will include Odierno and Barham Saleh, the deputy prime minister of Iraq.
Does he expect a tough crowd?
"I don't know," said Colbert. "It's got both things going for it. One is, they're hungry for entertainment. But also, they have awhole vocabulary of existence that I haven't experienced yet."
The shows' theme will be the declining attention paid to the war in Iraq. Colbert says he was spurred to make the trip when he noticed economic news coverage eclipsing reports from Baghdad.
Colbert said he feels a "special guilt" and responsibility to keep the soldiers' story alive because of the political nature of his program. The comedian is also guest editing next week's issue of Newsweek magazine. (A mock-up sits on his desk with the question "Remember Iraq?" splashed across the cover.)
"I don't want to forget that people are struggling through the things that I sometimes make jokes about," he said.
The 45-year-old comedian says he's not afraid of the danger of visiting Iraq ("I'm not a high value target"). Instead, he said he's only nervous about doing a good show for the troops.
"The show is always about me, it's always about the character," said Colbert. "What's different about this is, it's really about them. If they laugh, I'll be completely satisfied."
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