The InfoWars host Alex Jones has been described as a conspiracy theorist, a pro-Trump propagandist, a very rude lunch host, and (by our current president) a broadcaster with an “amazing” reputation. But he’s never been called a performance artist—at least until this week, when his lawyer claimed that his many baritone online rants were simply part of a “character” he’s playing, and not to be taken seriously. Most comedians have experience saying outrageous things to get a rise out of audiences, but when it comes to playing right-wing talk-show hosts for years at a time, there’s perhaps no better judge than Stephen Colbert.
So it was delightful to see The Late Show host dive into Jones’s mindset in the middle of Monday night’s show, first by riffing on the latter’s claim of doing “performance art.” Then, the program cut to Colbert playing a Jones-like character called Tuck Buckford, screaming at the audience in full-throated basso profundo while clad in a stars-and-stripes-emblazoned leather jacket. At the same time, the episode was an alarming sign of how the paradigm has shifted since Colbert first originated his own character for The Colbert Report in 2005—that Jones is now widely known enough to warrant a parody on CBS’s flagship late-night show.
After joking that Jones has the personality of “a coked-out football coach in a police standoff,” Colbert explains the far-right host to his audience by presenting one of his most famous clips—his “I’m a human” monologue, in which Jones lays out the essential building blocks of a true patriot. “I’m animated! I’m alive! My heart’s big! It’s got hot blood going through it fast! I like to fight, too! I like to eat! I like to have children! I’m here! I’ve got a life force!” Jones hollers at the camera.
For those who haven’t seen it, it’s worth checking out in full—it’s undoubtedly the moment that draws the biggest laughs of Colbert’s entire segment, including any joke the comedian himself tells. His own parodic take on Jones, Tuck Buckford, feels only marginally more exaggerated than his intended target. “My heart is a volcano! I’m a skeleton wrapped in angry meat! I’m a warrior, I’m a king!” Colbert yells. “The liberals want to tattoo Obama logos onto the skin of Christian babies!” he claims, before throwing to his sponsor, “self-lubricating catheters” (Jones is famed for using his conspiratorial rants to hawk suspicious vitamins and diet supplements online).
When Colbert launched The Colbert Report in 2005, he was fleshing out the fatheaded pundit character he had played for many years on The Daily Show before then, one he referred to as “a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot.” The radio host Rush Limbaugh was an obvious inspiration, as was Sean Hannity, but the bigger influence was the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who had practically invented the idea of turning “political commentary” into a rant about conservative orthodoxy, in which he yelled over guests who disagreed with him and presented bullet-pointed monologues on the day’s news.
O’Reilly now seems like a disarmingly quaint choice of right-wing host to mock. He’s now best known for the sexual-harassment scandal that’s threatening to end his show for good than for any particularly inflammatory comment he’s made on the air. Meanwhile, Jones is not employed by a major network, has advanced 9/11 trutherism and Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, and once claimed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were “demon-possessed” and smelled like sulfur. He even legally admits that his news show is a fictional performance piece—and yet he’s now influential enough to merit mainstream mockery.
Colbert has thrived on CBS by leaning into political humor, but he’s had that job made easier for him by the constantly moving target: It’s not tough to parody the fringe media when they admit they’re parodies themselves. The ultimate joke of “Tuck Buckford” was Colbert pretending he had filmed that segment long ago, and that Jones had drawn inspiration from it—a cute gag that feels eerily plausible. It’s becoming harder, after all, to know where comedy ends and the news begins.