Here’s a crucial part of Stephen Colbert’s appeal: The sometimes far-fetched statements his faux-pundit character makes tend to be rooted in emotional truths. In his breakout performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, The Colbert Report host eviscerated the Bush administration and the elite Washington press corps with lines that made sense both as arch-conservative caricatures and as bold truth-telling from the left. When he satirized the “super PAC” campaign finance arrangement during the 2012 election, he set up an actual super PAC. When he said he was tweeting with Bill Clinton, he was really tweeting with Bill Clinton. We’ve even seen his guts.
So despite all the speculation that Daft Punk’s recent failure to appear on the Report was all a publicity stunt for MTV’s Video Music Awards later this month, Colbert does only one kind of publicity stunt: for himself. And the “joke” of those stunts is usually that he’s not joking (former SPIN cover stars Das Racist‘s 2010 mixtape Sit Down Man had a great song on this concept). Sure, MTV has a motive and a history when it comes to scripting watercooler moments. Public-relations experts are divided on what might be happening here. And we may never know for sure. But keep the joking-not-joking concept in mind as you read what Colbert said on his show the night after Daft Punk’s non-appearance: “We thought we’d tricked you by flying in the disco decepticons from Paris in a sophisticated pantomine to fool everyone, even myself, so committed was I that Daft Punk was coming, all just to help someone else’s show on another network a month from now.”
Here’s what we know. Colbert said Daft Punk would appear. They didn’t. He said they will be “surprise” guests at the VMAs; MTV hasn’t confirmed it yet, so any surprise is still sort of intact. Colbert said MTV blocked Daft Punk from appearing and that he only found out at 2 p.m. the day before the taping. He danced to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” in a brilliant video montage with Bryan Cranston, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hugh Laurie, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, the Rockettes, and Henry Kissinger. Robin Thicke performed “Blurred Lines” on the show; Colbert winkingly pulled the chart-topper out of the studio audience. Neither MTV or Comedy Central have responded to SPIN’s email requests for comment.
Billboard, citing “sources,” reports that Thicke’s performance was actually recorded on July 31. The New York Times, citing three people with knowledge of the situation, reports that Daft Punk called to cancel on August 5, pointing to the VMAs booking as a reason. The Times reports that talks between Comedy Central and MTV got heated, and while parent Viacom stayed out of it, Columbia Records advised Daft Punk not to jeopardize the VMAs gig.
The Times report contains one detail that might be particularly revealing. Times music critic Ben Sisario writes that “the group was only willing to appear in costume, and not perform or sit for an interview.” Once again: No interview. No performance. No taking off the robot masks. If these sources are right, then the obvious planning that went into booking Thicke and the other cameos isn’t necessarily evidence of a Daft Punk-related stunt; Colbert was going to need a way to work around the duo’s lack of participation anyway.
That said, if Colbert did put on a “sophisticated pantomine” just “to help someone else’s show on another network a month from now,” that would not be too out of character for MTV. One of the writers for MTV’s 2009 Movie Awards confirmed, in a since-deleted Tumblr post, that Sacha Baron Cohen’s bare-assed landing on Eminem’s face was staged (the writer declined to be interviewed for this story). And that’s just what has been publicly acknowledged. Meanwhile, the VMAs have long been known for conversation-starting incidents: Madonna and Britney Spears’ lip-lock, Kanye West’s best Taylor Swift interruption of ALL TIME. But 2012’s show lacked a similar focal point, and ratings tumbled. With this year’s move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the VMAs have every reason to court a skeptical Colbert demographic — and, yes, Pitchfork, which Colbert called out in his next-day sarcasm.
Ronn Torossian, the founder of 5W Public Relations, sides with those who’d say Colbert is taking part in a stunt to promote the VMAs. “People shouldn’t forget at the end of the day entertainment is big business,” says Torossian, who acknowledges having presented monogamous celebrities as playboys and single celebrities as romantically linked. “Stephen Colbert gets his pay check from the same people who own MTV, and I just find it hard to believe that this thing was a complete accident.” The folks at MTV, he adds, are “geniuses at creating publicity.”
Some other public relations executives say they don’t believe Daft Punk’s cancellation was staged. One is Ryan Evans, founder of Bitesize PR, which last November put together a list of the 100 Greatest Publicity Stunts of All Time (yes, of ALL TIME). “If it was a publicity stunt it wasn’t a very creative one,” Evans says. “Stephen Colbert is a genius at publicity stunts. He does it so quickly that he can take any situation and make it into something funny.” Still, Evans says the timing for a stunt promoting the VMAs would have been about right.
Drew Kerr, who writes the PR Rock and Roll blog and is lead public relations counsel at Four Corners Communications, describes himself as the type who sees conspiracies everywhere. But he doesn’t seen one here. He says it’s not unusual for entertainment companies to pull rank and poach each other’s guests. “The genius of Colbert is that he was able to turn around and make a joke of it,” Kerr says. “Instead of being embarrassed, or making a joke about it here and there and just moving on, he elevated it to its own publicity-generating stunt.”
Whether MTV is genius, Colbert is, or “genius” is just a thorny word we all probably use too often, the Daft Punk non-event is clearly generating publicity. Including here. Right now. And also now. Also: now. At this point, if Colbert were to show up at the VMAs — and especially if he were to show up with Daft Punk — would that be proof it was all scripted? Or just another Colbert coup?