More of a surprise was his recruitment of Herman Cain, the scandal-plagued former GOP presidential candidate. But there was Cain on Friday afternoon, on the campus of the College of Charleston at a pitch-perfect, Colbert-sponsored sendup of a political rally, sporting his signature broad-brimmed hat, singing gospel in his croony baritone and making corny references to his 9-9-9 tax plan.
You could have blinked and thought it was November.
Cain's reception from the hundreds of college kids, many of them liberals, was exceedingly warm, except for a moment when Cain got serious and suggested, in earnest, that they join the tea party, triggering an awkward silence and scattered groans.
One sign in the crowd, alluding to the scandal currently plaguing Newt Gingrich, asked, "Will you have an open relationship with me, Herman Cain?"
Colbert used the event to satirize, yet again, the influence of money in politics, particularly the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizen's United vs. FEC ruling, which determined that corporations are people and thus endowed with free speech rights — and, by extension, the right to spend as much as they please on political campaigns.
"If corporations are people, then I'm a people person," Colbert, in full blowhard character, said, hailing himself as a kind of MLK of "corporate civil rights": "The Lockheed Martin Luther Burger King, if you will."
Colbert has formed his own "super PAC," which has tried to buy the naming rights to the primary and released ads directed at South Carolina voters. He has also launched, he says, an "exploratory bid for president of the United States of South Carolina."
But Colbert cannot get his name on the ballot, and Cain's remains on it. Hence Colbert's latest gambit: convincing people to vote for Cain, with whom Colbert says he shares political values. If enough vote Cain, Colbert says, he will interpret that as a sign that he should formally declare his candidacy.
Which was why, on this bright, cool afternoon, this stately 19th century campus was treated to a classic demonstration of Colbertian overkill, with a blaring marching band, cheerleaders shaking pompoms and a gospel choir singing "This Little Light of Mine," as Colbert took the stage to a delighted roar, backed by a huge banner declaring, "Vote Cain."
"Whoever said you can't go home again did not have access to a private jet," Colbert said before introducing Cain as "The Mad Max of the flat tax."
Cain, of course, was forced to suspend his campaign in early December after being dogged by accusations of sexual improprieties with women who were not his wife.
More recently, Cain has demonstrated an upbeat twist on Marx's maxim that historical figures appear the first time as tragedy and the second as farce, reintroducing himself to Americans in the last few days as a cuddly totem of political nostalgia.
Last week, Cain was warmly received on Bill Maher's "Real Time" show. Friday morning he was on CNN, telling Soledad O'Brien that "character issues are important" to the American voter.
At the rally, Cain was full of good cheer, smiling in a smart dark suit and shades. "America needs to learn how to lighten up," he said.
Though Cain wasn't all fun and games, the crowd had a hard time switching gears. When he tried to sell them on his new issues website, cainconnections.com, a woman yelled, "That sounds like a dating site!"
When he told them that in fact they really shouldn't vote for him -- he wanted them to be engaged in the issues of the day, he said, and not "waste" their vote as Colbert instructed -- a young man bellowed, "Still votin' for you!"
A number of students, like Dominique Awis, 24, said that although they were Obama supporters, they planned on voting for Cain in the GOP primary Saturday "to show what a political farce this super PAC thing is."
As a public speaker, Cain is fond of list-making, and he had three serious things he wanted the crowd to remember ("Washington is broken"/"Stay involved"/"Stay inspired"). But what the kids really wanted, it seemed, was for him to recite the lyrics to "The Power of One," the theme song to the children's movie "Pokemon."
During his campaign, Cain had quoted the inspirational-themed lyrics, misattributing them to a "poet."
"Pokemon!" they screamed. "Pokemon!"
"The Pokemon thing," Cain said, before treating them to a dramatic recitation. "Oh, I know me some Pokemon words."