In the normally surreal atmosphere of US military headquarters in Saddam Hussein's former palace, a taped appearance by President Obama ordering his top general in Iraq to shave comedian Stephen Colbert's head didn't even seem that odd.
To the delighted audience of about 250 servicemen and women who were the studio audience of "Operation Iraq Stephen: Going Commando," the show was part of an hour-long suspension of a war that for many on this vast base has become more drudgery than danger.
Comedy Central's "Colbert Report" airing Monday night is the first of four episodes of the satirical program to be taped in Iraq, sponsored by the United Service Organization (USO) and broadcast this week in a unique collaboration with the military.
In the ballroom of the marble palace at Camp Victory Sunday night, Mr. Colbert bounded onto the stage wearing a business suit made of the same camouflage fabric of Army uniforms. Swinging a golf club, he told the audience what a thrill it was to bring his show to the men and women in Iraq: "a country so nice we invaded it twice."
"It must be nice here, because I understand some of you keep coming back again and again and again," he said to a wave of laughter.
It's a little-known fact that there is a lot of dark humor in war – soldiers cope by finding things funny that the rest of the world likely wouldn't appreciate. Fittingly, one of the biggest laughs was in response to one of the reasons why Colbert said the US should declare victory here: The US has "eliminated weapons of mass destruction." "Easier than we thought" ran the subtext on a giant screen.
"This is not 'Camp Cautiously Optimistic'.... This is not 'Camp Obviously We Must Work Towards Sunni Participation in the Upcoming Elections in January 2010.' This is Camp Victory!," Colbert bellowed behind a set made up of red, white, and blue sandbags.
Holding up a Risk boardgame and saying the rules state it's not over till someone declares victory, he said: "You heard it here first – I, Stephen Colbert, by the power invested in me by basic cable, officially declare: 'We won the Iraq war.' "
"That's a little concerning. We're not quite ready to declare victory yet," guest star Gen. Ray Odierno told him, adding there was still some work they had to do with the government of Iraq. "It's about long-term stability. It's still dangerous out here."
General Odierno gives Colbert a shave
When the towering – and bald – general turned to the issue of whether Colbert could succeed as a soldier without a hair cut, he was interrupted by a video message from Mr. Obama. The commander in chief said he wanted to send his greetings to the servicemen and women in Iraq and then ordered Odierno to cut the comedian's hair.
The general started the job with an electric razor before a hair stylist took over to give the entertainer something close to a crew cut.
The show also included a taped message from former presidential candidate John McCain: "As a former military man I have a word of advice: 'Make sure to always take the time to clean your musket.'"
Colbert said he wanted to come to Iraq because in the US, the war had faded out of view.
"I thought the whole thing was over. I haven't seen any news stories on it in months," he said.
Colbert lands interviews denied to other journalists
Despite approximately 130,000 US troops still fighting the war in Iraq, as the US hands over security to the Iraqi government, the American military has become increasingly reticent about being covered. One of the Colbert Report episodes will include an appearance by Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the head of US ground operations here. His interview with the comedian is the first he's granted since taking over April. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the month when Jacoby took command.]
Bringing the popular comedy show here took months of planning. In the last few days, Faw Palace, the US military headquarters in what was Saddam Hussein's huge palace complex near the airport has been overrun with writers and set assistants.
The set was constructed partially of cases of ubiquitous plastic bottles of water cleverly wrapped in clear plastic and lit with red and blue lights to make them look like crystal columns. USO organizers say it is the first US television program entirely produced and hosted in Iraq to be broadcast from here.
Colbert, whose show was a spinoff from Jon Stewart's satirical 'The Daily Show' with its regular feature on the war entitled 'Mess-O-Potamia', has been a persistent skeptic of the conflict in Iraq but has supported the troops. On stage, he spoke into an old-fashioned looking-microphone with the USO logo that harkened back to the days of Bob Hope entertaining US forces abroad.
Almost to a person, the soldiers asked after the program what they thought of it declared it "awesome," particularly the hair cut.
Journalists were directed by the military not to ask soldiers anything broader than how they felt about the show but given the program's content, that left the door wide open.