Say Cheese: Colbert portrait draws D.C. ironists, repels elderly.
Say Cheese: Colbert portrait draws D.C. ironists, repels elderly. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Before he reaches National Portrait Gallery immortality, Stephen Colbert must reach a new viewing demographic.

The portrait of Colbert—­scheduled to hang in the Portrait Gallery until March 2—is a sarcastic triple threat: The meta portrait shows Stephen Colbert posed in front of a portrait of Stephen Colbert posed in front of a portrait of Stephen Colbert. Though the 2005 “digital print on canvas” is encased in the NPG’s standard gilded frame, it’s a piece of shit: It looks like a photograph of the comedian run through the “brush stroke” function on Photoshop and then cycled through the washing machine.

It’s also located squarely between the men’s and women’s toilets and almost on top of the water fountain, a locale meant to make sure visitors know that the Portrait Gallery’s tongue is so firmly in cheek that it’s nearly swallowed: If in any doubt, the placard on the side will clarify that it’s all a “joke.”

The kids, though, take it pretty seriously. Colbert strong-armed himself into the halls of the National Portrait Gallery by, essentially, harassing the Smithsonian on air and dubbing himself a “national treasure.” Now, Colbert’s national treasuriness has done what high-school outreach, field trips, and free admission could not do: It has drawn young people by the hundreds to voluntarily visit a museum, inspiring them to stand in line and snap unauthorized flash photos of themselves, their hero, and the drinking fountain.

These children of the Colbert Nation need little convincing that the Colbert can hold its own across the hall from the Washington, the Franklin, and the Einstein. And now, Colbertheads are rallying to add the portrait to the gallery’s permanent collection.

In a guestbook near the portrait one of them writes: “Warning: Removing the Colbert portrait will finally prove just how much Smithsonian hates America and families.”

“I came to see a portrait of my son, Stephen Tiberius Colbert,” writes another, “and it was the best day of my eternal life. –God.”

One fan boils the issue down to a simple mathematical inequality: “Colbert > Modern Art.”

But alas, this is not the Colbert National Portrait Gallery. If the Colbert is to earn the necessary gravitas to actually snag an enduring spot in the Smithsonian, he’d better get to D.C.’s most faithful museumgoer: the old person. Judging by the elderly folks who checked out Colbert’s portrait last Sunday, he’s going to need to work a little bit harder before he wins this matchup:

• On a Sunday afternoon, a spindly older security guard stands on alert in front of the portrait. The guard wears perfectly round wire-framed glasses, looks a bit like a walking stick bug, and fits the profile: He appears not to have been born yesterday. How does he like the portrait? “Terrible!” he says before creeping back to duly remind the crowd: Turn off the flash. Clear the hallway. Do not touch.

The score: Colbert 0; Old People 1.

• As another man (age politely not disclosed) passes by the Colbert on a docent-led gallery tour, the docent politely discloses: “That’s Stephen Colbert” and asks: “Do you watch his show?” The man does not watch his show. “He’s a comedian,” the docent explains. “I won’t even go into it.”

“A comedian, huh?” The man stops, places his hands jauntily in his pockets, and prepares to provide his opinion on the portrait without looking at it. “In my opinion,” he says, “comedians went out with Bob Hope.”

He turns to the Andrew Jackson, who poses in skinny trousers and a red cape, a dainty handkerchief in one hand and a long cane in the other. “Now that’s a portrait,” he says.

The score: Colbert 0; Andrew Jackson 1; Old People 2.

• Another viewer, who identifies herself as “an old woman” so I don’t have to, happens upon Colbert’s portrait while taking a drink at the fountain. She is similarly unimpressed. “I think it’s a very odd place to have a portrait,” she says, pursing her lips and nodding vigorously. “Yes, I think it’s a very bad portrait. I can’t tell you who it is by looking at it. And it’s an awfully serious portrait, for a comedian.”

The score: Colbert 0; Old People 3.

• “Well, my granddaughter is very impressed by it!” counters 82-year-old Irene Orechovs from Toronto. Granddaughter Katie Mazikins, 15, confirms she considers the painting “awesome.” “I wouldn’t say it’s funny,” adds Orechovs. “It’s a very nice portrait, and a good likeness.”

The score: Colbert 1; Old People 3.

• “I for one, think it’s funny as a stick!” rebuts 73-year-old Alexandria resident Donald B. Pruitt, Ph.D. Pruitt then proceeds to provide his opinion on another portrait as well: The 1761 likeness of Carlos III of Spain, in the gallery’s “Legacy” exhibit. “This man was the King of Spain,” says Pruitt, “but look at his face. What do you think it indicates about his mental capacity?”…He continues: “I know that’s not a very PC question to ask a young person, but I think he looks retarded.”

The score: Colbert 2; Stick 1; Carlos III of Spain 0; Old People 3.

• Frank and Jo Crawford, 80 and 76, respectively, don’t have much of an opinion on the Colbert Portrait. “We don’t have cable,” Frank says. “We don’t know too much about Colbert,” adds Jo, pronouncing the hard T. “Maybe you should ask the young people about it.”

The score: Colbert 2; Old People 5.

Winner: Old People. Better luck next time, Colbert.

WHINE TO FIVE: Local Office Space worker bees talk it out

At the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse’s semiannual celebration of Mike Judge’s 1999 cult film Office Space, the costume contest is generally a highlight. This year, however, the so-called “TPS Report Managers Meeting” drew only two contestants: one apron-wearing, flair-adorned Chotchkie’s waitress, and one suspendered, Initech mug-swigging stand-in for insufferable boss Bill Lumbergh—and they were friends.

But scanning the sold-out crowd, it was clear the eventgoers didn’t need costumes: Everyone looked exactly as they should. Short-sleeved button-downs and pleated khakis reigned in round, cubicle-grown bellies; short, parted haircuts were cut neatly above the ears; cell phones were secured snuggly to belts. One bespectacled man looked so much like the film’s boyish, sad-sack Michael Bolton character that he could have gotten lost on the way to the bathrooms and won the contest on a lark.

These office drones had arrived directly from the business casual environments to sound off on what the film can sum up in just two words: Work Sucks. When asked to elaborate on the most soulless things they’ve ever had to do for work, everyone had a story.

THE MANAGER: Treating a group of company underlings to drinks and a movie, he’s the type of guy who privately considers himself “the cool boss.” But work life has not always been so productive, positive, and fun. In 1976, he spent a week submerged in a Woodbridge, Va., creek, cleaning an oil spill with his hands. “We literally had to scoop up the oil with paper towels,” he says. “It was horrible. I was broke.”

THE CELL BIOLOGIST: “I went through 10 years of college,” says the researcher, who holds a Ph.D. “I’m still making copies for somebody.”

THE MONEY MANAGER: “My boss sat on my lunch,” she recalls. “My boss has a sciatic nerve problem. He had a long meeting but couldn’t find his ice pack in the freezer, so he picked my Lean Cuisine out, put it underneath his ass, and sat on it. He sat there on my lunch for an hour. Then he just put it back in the freezer,” she says. Did she eat it? “No,” she says, her voice rising into a desperate lilt. “I had to buy my lunch. But I never brought it up with him,” she admits, adding, “My boss is so scary.”

THE TEACHER: “I don’t have a problem admitting when I’m wrong,” insists the teacher, who has taught French, German, government, and tennis classes in area middle and high schools. “But when the administration, and the parents, and the student are all against you, and they’re telling you that you have to apologize for something you didn’t do, that’s really hard,” he says. When asked to elaborate on what exactly he didn’t do, the teacher replied, “Just for something the student made up. Not, uh, not anything sexual. It wasn’t sexual.”

THE NURSE: This would-be Chotchkie’s waitress won the costume contest with her 15 pieces of flair—a string of handmade, oversize sparkly plastic buttons. She also blows all the other bad work stories out of the water by not really understanding the question. “I had to stay up all night harvesting organs,” she says. You what? “I’m a nurse, so, you know, I had to stay up with a patient who had had a brain aneurism and wait until she died so we could harvest her organs.”

Fine, but next time make sure and file a TPS report.

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