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Who Are the Smartest Celebrities?

Chicago Tribune
Some wow you with their looks, others with their singing or acting. And then there are those entertainers who blow your mind with their smarts. Here are eight of them.

This list is not about people with high IQs or Ivy League degrees; it's not about people who are outspoken, humanitarian or activist; it's not about artistic genius. Not that we deny the smarts of, say, Harvard grads Natalie Portman or Rivers Cuomo, or the Coen Brothers or Thom Yorke. This list isn't about the smartest people in entertainment. It's about people who entertain by being smart, whose intellects illuminate their performances.

Like any list, this one is open to dispute. Our main criteria was sharpness of mind, evidenced by a natural grasp of politics and current events, a remarkable fluidity with language or an uncanny comprehension of how the human mind works. Their work is often innovative or awe-inspiring, inspiring knock-offs and emulations across the arts. This list is also very particular to the year 2007. Twenty years ago we probably would have listed Woody Allen. But today, he's no match for someone like, say, Stephen Colbert.

The list also naturally skews toward certain professions, mostly comics or show hosts. That's because these people have the ideal platform to show off their opinions and smarts, whereas, say, actors are resigned to performing the roles they're given.

So without further ado, here are our eight picks.

1. Stephen Colbert, Host of The Colbert Report Rarely is Stephen Colbert at a loss for words while sparring with the guests on his show. Without faltering, he matches wit with wit on matters of all importance -- politics, religion, global economics. And the plus to his A performance? He does it all under the guise of his alter ego pundit. In the unscripted terrain of his guest interviews, Colbert is so sharp that he's able to maneuver through all sorts of conversational terrain, always in character. While a less intelligent host may struggle to juggle conversation, role-playing and joke-hatching all at once, Colbert pulls it off without a hitch. And he's had some hefty conversations to juggle, with past guests including everyone from Madeline Albright to Tom Brokaw. Besides, you've gotta have some smarts to finagle the Decemberists into a guitar-shredding contest judged by Eliot Spitzer.

2. Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter When Stranger Than Fiction, starring Will Ferrell, came out last year, it was called "Kaufman lite" by a number of media outlets. Thus establishing Charlie Kaufman as a mold in the industry. With Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman has proven to be one of showbiz's most sympathetic, entertaining and accurate relayers of human agony and foibles. Though his scripts are more concerned with the inner mind than the world at large, his insight into that complex inner world is remarkably, achingly astute.

3. Howard Stern, Satellite radio show host Loud-mouthed Howard Stern is not for everyone, with his explicit ruminations on sex and race. But if you get beyond the controversy, you'll find an intelligent core. Stern's intelligence lies in his keen allegiance to the truth -- whether you agree with his truth or not -- and his ability to justify it. Bluntly. He can also talk about nearly anything on his show, be it politics or celebrities, and come out with a respectable opinion.

4. Oprah Winfrey, TV host and media mogul Oprah Winfrey is on many lists, from most influential to wealthiest. But she's on our smart list because of her capacity to reflect intelligently on the events of her life and those of others. Her words are wise in their resonance. "I know the difference between a store that is closed and a store that is closed to me," she said after a Hermes shop in Paris would not let her in a few minutes after closing -- an allowance typically granted to celebrities, but which was denied to her on account of her race, she said. She is a modern-day sage.

5. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Creators of South Park Through South Park and their feature films, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have serviced the public with astute mockeries of pop culture and politics' more inane aspects. They take shots at both sides of the political spectrum, leaving hardly a self-important public figure unscathed. They staged a school election on South Park to ridicule the drawn-out 2000 presidential election. After Hurricane Katrina, they ran an episode that targeted TV reporters and environmentalists who exploited the tragedy for their respective causes. Team America: World Police parodied Jerry Bruckheimer movies. Their forays into taboo territory like stem cell research have led to claims of thoughtlessness, but as Parker said in a CBS interview, "You have to think about it a lot in order to make fun of it."

6. Jon Stewart, Host of The Daily Show As the joke now goes, many people get their news from The Daily Show. Jon Stewart's guest interviews don't require the same mental dexterity as those of his spin-off colleague Stephen Colbert, but Stewart's badge of intelligence is his ability to elucidate the absurdities of today's media world. Clearly equipped with a strong grasp of current events and politics, Stewart -- who proposed to his wife via a specially commissioned New York Times crossword puzzle, FYI -- takes a further analytical step and laughs, aghast, at the media circus surrounding these events. As he said in his famous Crossfire interview, in which he skewered host Tucker Carlson for being a "partisan hack," his material comes from the "theater of it all."

7. Dennis Miller, Comedian/political commentator With his wacky artillery of esoteric references, Dennis Miller is famous for larding his conversations with analogies and metaphors that draw from a clearly encyclopedic body of knowledge. His highly cerebral and sometimes indecipherable asides may go over your head -- they didn't go over too well with viewers during his tenure at Monday Night Football. Though he had a surprising amount of knowledge about the sport, his literary references didn't quite gel with typical game chatter. Today, you can witness his undeniable intelligence on the Fox News network, where he provides political commentary.

8. Bono Long before Bono was a cover-of-Time-worthy activist, he was an activist through lyrics. And those articulate lyrics brought more awareness and sympathy to the Irish situation than the words of countless politicians and newspaper articles. In a time of pontificating celebrities, some of them the real thing, others less so, Bono is more than intelligent-by-comparison.

© Chicago Tribune, 2007. All rights reserved.