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October 19, 2005

The Colbert Report

I think Dana Stevens gets the trouble with the Colbert Report exactly right:

Watching Colbert stretch his Daily Show character into a half-hour format sparked an impromptu reflection on the work Colbert has cut out for him. Jon Stewart may laugh at everything and everybody, including himself, but for the most part, we don't laugh at him. On the contrary: Stewart is, quite literally, our anchor, the one fixed point of sanity who watches, bemused, as the utter insanity of the day's news (and of his correspondents, who seem to take it all seriously) swirls around him. Stewart is the guy scanning the headlines and pausing to ask, "What the hell is this? What's really going on?" The whole joke of Colbert's persona is that he deliberately avoids asking those questions, or indeed, any questions at all. Stephen Colbert (or "Stephen Colbert," the character he plays) is proudly ignorant, aggressively obtuse—qualities that make him perfectly suited for parodying the new breed of cable-news bloviators. But by its very nature, the position Colbert occupies—the butt of his own show's joke—seems more difficult to sustain than Stewart's role as the eternal observer.

It is much tougher to sustain. What's great about Stewart is..well..Stewart. He seems like our voice in the media. A sane, intelligent, skeptical, well-meaning paladin for the people. We like to watch him because his interviews and humor bring us in on the jokes. Colbert, on the other hand, is the joke, trapped in a self-consciously disagreeable persona for the duration of his program. He's been following the O'Reilly template well, primarily taking on small bore, funny/stupid/outrageous stories, but since he's doing it in order to mock O'Reilly's template, it's a bit hard to watch. After all, if you want to see O'Reilly made fun of, yoou want that because you find the idea of watching his show every night distasteful. Thus, watching a show patterned -- however ironically -- on the No Spin Zone is similarly exhausting.

I really, really, really want to like the Colbert Report. But I'm having trouble doing it.

October 19, 2005 in Television | Permalink

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Ezra comments. What he says that's right: What's great about Stewart is..well..Stewart. He seems like our voice in the media. A sane, intelligent, skeptical, well-meaning paladin for the people. We like to watch him because his interviews and humor bring [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 19, 2005 7:30:19 PM

» The Colbert Report from Something Requisitely Witty and Urbane
So, it should come as no surprise to readers of this blog, that I really, really want to like The Colbert Report. After three episodes, I'd say that opinion hasn't changed: I still really, really want to like it. The [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 20, 2005 4:12:50 PM

Comments

In defense of Colbert, he is a much better interviewer than Stewart, and deceptively so. I'm looking forward to when he starts having on some controversial guests.

Where Stewart's talk show host interviewing style is sometimes accommodating to a fault (the awful Santorum interview being a prime example) and often cringe-inducing, Colbert is very quick with his responses, and stays focused even when the inteview goes off-script. And staying in character will prevent him from making those self-effacing jokes that kill tense interviews. Heck, he almost made Stone Phillips compelling -- imagine what he'd do with Bill O'Reilly.

I agree, the opening segment is a bit too much, although it may have worked better without a studio audience. They can always re-tool that part, though.

Posted by: PapaJijo | Oct 19, 2005 3:47:47 PM

Tuesday's show was definitely better, with more focus on today's stories than on an introductory show that had clearly been planned for months.

It is quite valid that there may be an insoluble problem with the protagonist being the source of mockery instead of a stand-in for our voice. But a lot of the successful parts of the daily show (the segments, the America Book) were more in the former than the latter, so I think it's a matter of debate that needs more evidence gathering.

As for Stewart being a dreadful interviewer, I used to entirely agree with PapaJijo, but he's been more willing to be attacking lately, especially if you saw the O'Reilly interview Tuesday. So there's hope. Also, Stewart being an accomodating interviewer is part of the reason he was able to get so many guests. Dahlia's point about Colbert not being able to get the right guests would be nice.

It'd be cute if guests started going on the show as a faux-O'Reilly thing in order to present their argument in the most friendly atmosphere possible: where they get to argue against the most straw-man clearly-wrong opponent they'll ever get on national TV.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Oct 19, 2005 3:58:21 PM

I disagree somewhat. It has a different tone -- of course, this is more of a direct satire than Stewart's show -- but I frankly found the first two episodes, well, terrific.

The interviews -- well, there's going to be the rough part over the long term. What Colbert has to do is improv via a character and that can occasionally be annoying (and doesn't really allow a guest to "plug" anything -- because the conceit is that Colbert is more interested in himself than anything the guest wants to plug).

But man that show has a ton of potential -- great writers, Colbert and an idea so perfect (parody of Scarborough/O'Reilly) I'm actually shocked it hasn't been tried about fifty times before.

Posted by: Chris R | Oct 19, 2005 4:17:31 PM

Ezra, you are forgeting one of the most important aspects of sitcoms, situation comedies, and shows like the Colbert Report, Daily Show, Mind of Mencia, Dave Chappelle, etc.: evolution.

Every show has to start on a certain premise and then over time morph into other avenues of thought and focus. The Daily Show has become "our voice in the media," but did it start out that way? No. The Daily Show has become the true news program that is able to filter out the BS and point out what is common sense to even the most average of Americans, but did it start out that way? No. It started out as a spin-off of the network news anchor shows, and has evolved into an outright mockery of the profession of journalism. It evolved to become the program it is today.

Which brings us to the Colbert Report. The show ridicules the cable news programs like Hardball, the Situation Room, and the O'Reilly Factor, and the arrogance that these hosts have. Steven is playing a character, when you would rather he not. But that is the initial premise of this show. That is not to say that it could change. Lord knows that The Daily Show of 3-4 years ago was nowhere near the kind of show it is today, nor have the kind of cult following and pop culture influence it has now. It evolved into what we have now come to love. Give it time, and the Colbert Report could do the same.

Posted by: gfactor | Oct 19, 2005 4:20:47 PM

Wow, you're totally wrong here. Colbert is a funny and gifted improv comic with a talent for being hilarious on the spot; he's fantastic on interviews and does characters better than anyone on his old show. Stewart himself is really NOT that funny, although he is a rather personable interviewer - far moreso than his network late night counterparts - but while his timing is alright, he's no better than the strength of his material, and his fallback is all too often a handful of cornball lines and voices that become unbearable over time (I wince when he does that squeaky Jerry Lewis routine).

More damning, Stewart is very, very credulous when taking on any number of rightwingers whose personal bailiwicks he just doesn't comprehend; I remember an interview with a "climate change isn't real" shill which was simply painful to watch. He's also bought into his own "striaght shooter" press a little too much, boxing himself into a "pox on both their houses" corner on issues where it simply makes him look absurd. Last year he insisted he might still vote for Bush if Bush were to say he was sorry; days after Katrina he aired a ranting "pox on both their houses" segment in which he took refuge in the "it's everybody's fault" cliche. Recently he's felt alarmingly off, going less for incisiveness than for cheap and outdated gags. Hell, a couple weeks ago he was making "French surrender" and "Germans are Nazis" jokes. I'd groan at those if they were coming out of my grandfather. Colbert on the other hand goes straight for absurdism, which really is the only place left to go in satire right now - it's the only area where you can hope to outmatch reality by any reasonable measure.

If anyone can pull off a mock-shout show as well as Stewart pulled off the mock-news show, it's Colbert. I suspect he'll modify it over time to take a whack at more topical stuff. But "joke right wing editorial" is a genre that works, has been plumbed pretty well on the net, and is ripe to be explored on TV.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Oct 19, 2005 4:23:27 PM

I like Stewart. The problem with doing a spin-off of the Daily Show is that, well, we already have the Daily Show. If they're going to do another show, it has to be different, otherwise they might as well just extend the Daily show to one hour. I'm not familiar with the O'Reilly Factor and similar (except secondhand), and I find the show to be very funny.

I find the interviews to be the least interesting parts of both shows. Well, the one with O'Reilly was interesting, mostly because I was afraid Bill was going to pull off a latex mask and clamp onto Jon's face with his mandibles. But if the show stays in the Daily Show mold for interviews, a lot of them are going to be actors, singers, and other puff-piece celebrities, and I think Colbert's calculated insanity will be more entertaining with those folks than Stewart's amiable jokiness.

Posted by: Kylroy | Oct 19, 2005 4:28:39 PM

Thus, watching a show patterned -- however ironically -- on the No Spin Zone is similarly exhausting.

That is exactly how I feel. I hate the factor so much and watching this makes me feel like replaying a semi entertaining SNL parody over and over and over again. I will DVR it during the week and watch it on the weekends. That way I can skip foward if it annoys me.

Not all his regular Daily Show appearances are O'Reillyesque. Take the This Week In God segments. Love those!

Posted by: Adrock | Oct 19, 2005 4:35:17 PM

I hate the factor so much and watching this makes me feel like replaying a semi entertaining SNL parody over and over and over again.

Yes, but for me that's a good thing. For example, I think Hardball is unwatachable, and Chris Matthews just isn't that interesting. However, SNL's parody of Hardball, using Darrell Hammond as a stand-in for Chris Matthews, is great! I love watching it. I feel the same way about The Colbert Report, not to mention that Stephen Colbert's interviews are better than Jon Stewart's.

Posted by: Constantine | Oct 19, 2005 4:50:56 PM

What the hell happened last night anyway? Was O'Reilly supposed to have an extra-long interview? They brought him on at like 11:10, but he was gone by about 11:15 and they went into a canned "report" after the break. Did they pull the plug on him b/c he was being obnoxious? Or is there some other reason his intervew was in the middle of the show and not the end?

It sure looked like Stewart gave him the hook. They were arguing on and on, and Stewart abruptly grabbed O'Reilly's book and gave it a quick plug, and they went to commercial.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 19, 2005 5:06:14 PM

Did they pull the plug on him b/c he was being obnoxious?

O'Really is always very persnickety when he has to be interviewed. He makes silly demands before he'll agree to do it, and then throws a little hissy fit and stomps out. Witness the remarkable "Fresh Air" interview on NPR - made demands about the final editing, then he pretended to get all huffy and stormed out of the show, and then spent the next couple of weeks whining about "that woman" that hurt his feelings on NPR. Last night on TDS the audience was giving Bill the business and he was clearly uncomfortable with it. Maybe TDS simply chopped off whatever storm-out Bill staged.

Posted by: sprocket | Oct 19, 2005 5:17:13 PM

Ezra, you're a real pundit now, and the pundit's fallacy applies to you too. You have started piling onto the conventional wisdom of something that has barely gotten started and pronounced it too hard for you to understand. I was howling irretrievably throughout last night's show, because the jokes were absolutely coming too fast and furious to keep track of (notably "tear me off a piece of that").

Colbert's shtick is to mock the arrogance of the celebrity talk-show host, the guy/gal whose pomposity overwhelms any legitimate discussion of the issues. As long as those people continue to descend to lower levels of unscrupulous egomania, they will generate enough material for Colbert to do a truckload of shows.

Think about every time you hear Jon Stewart say that he's about to run a clip from Hannity and Colmes. Don't you cringe? Don't you think you've seen and heard it all from Hannity? And isn't what you hear worse that you could possibly imagine, even accounting for the fact that you knew it would be worse that you could possibly imagine? That's where The Colbert Report gets its legs. That is why it will never get old.

Posted by: diddy | Oct 19, 2005 5:19:42 PM

I just read Stevens' piece and realized I missed the whole interview and gravitas-off section. I must have fell asleep and somehow made it up to bed semi-conscious. That sounds hilarious!

Posted by: Adrock | Oct 19, 2005 5:46:03 PM

Having not seen Colbert (but dying to - it's past my bedtime - yes, that's old age for ya), I think Ezra's taking Stewart a little too seriously. Stewart's joke is, to my mind, being seen as just that sort of objective, keenly observant news guy when he's not. (That, after all, is why the Tucker Carlson kerfuffle resonated so well - Carlson insisting on taking Stewart seriously and Stewart refusing to go along.) He's a comedian, and a surprisingly sharp, drily funny one at that, getting in and under the ways of the newscast and the newscaster to make jokes I, for one, never saw coming, anyway. When he launched "This Week in God" all I could think of was those Jennings/Brokaw "Special Segment" setups that sounded oh-so-serious and turned out to be "Do grocery stores repackage day old meat?" groaners. It's not just the absurdity of religion in the culture that Stewarts commenting on at a moment like this.

It sounds like the difference between the two is that Stewart is playing straght man to whoever he has on while Colbert is expecting his guests to be the straight man. I think of the two Stewart actually has the harder task, because a funny straight man is a tough job (no pun intended, although... there is a point there).

Most of all, Stewart reminds me of Carson - bemused, with a sly wit that sometimes takes a minute to get, and a skill at teasing out good stuff from the guests. I think the larger point is that given what seems like a wildly talented bunch between Daily Show and now Colbert, there's plenty of material for both, and they'll complement each other very nicely.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 19, 2005 6:42:19 PM

What the hell happened last night anyway? Was O'Reilly supposed to have an extra-long interview? They brought him on at like 11:10, but he was gone by about 11:15 and they went into a canned "report" after the break. Did they pull the plug on him b/c he was being obnoxious? Or is there some other reason his intervew was in the middle of the show and not the end?

I had wondered the same thing until the gag near the end of the show in which Jon and Stephen specifically referred to the O'Reilly interview minutes before (and it wasn't an improvised bit, either), so I'm thinking it was planned in that sequence all along.

Posted by: Lindsey | Oct 19, 2005 7:22:34 PM

I've never really been into the interviews on TDS. Much too short, not very informing, and rarely funny. It seems as if the guests appear because their agent has booked TDS into the lineup of book-tour interviews, and only that.

I haven't caught Colbert's new show, so I'll suspend judgement - but I suspect that any comedy show that depends on non-cast members to play even a straight-guy role will never be as funny as the role-playing that SNL thrived upon. Maybe that is what Colbert should do: find a role-player appropriate to the 'interviewee' being dissected.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Oct 19, 2005 8:06:57 PM

Give the guy a break. Give it time. We may learn to love it. As you said, this is a hard to do successfully format.

Posted by: mpower1952 | Oct 19, 2005 8:43:02 PM

It seems that Colbert has quite the legion of fans, and only two shows have aired!

That legion of fans includes me. I loved it. But I think that, in order to survive, the show will need to evolve.

And the first step is to get the man a sidekick. He needs a jelly to his peanut butter, a McMahon to his Carson, a Zorak to his Space Ghost. I think that will give Colbert even more material.

Posted by: Pepper | Oct 19, 2005 10:21:30 PM

The opening show "Word" was hilarious. Ya'll be trippin'.

Posted by: Matt_C | Oct 19, 2005 10:45:02 PM

Wow, I'm shocked at how positive the comments are. I guess I just disagree. Maybe it's a personal preference thing -- but I just feel like Colbert is a one trick pony, and that trick is going to get real old, real fast.

And I also have "unreasonable love" for Stewart. Even if his stand up or whatever sucks, I can't imagine any one doing a better job with TDS.

Posted by: Kate | Oct 20, 2005 12:29:37 AM

I was quite worried about whether the Colbert Report would work, but I have to say I'm pretty impressed with how well the first three episodes have gone. So far it's been great.

That said, I'm still unsure how long they can keep it up. I think the O'Reilly parody is going to get old. Hopefully they can find new ways of keeping things interesting (especially since Colbert is a brilliant comedian) but they've got their work cut out for them.

One of the nice things about TDS is that it's so segmented. Stewart does a short opening, then some news stories, then goes to a correspondent, then they have a taped report, and then an interview. If any part falls flat, it's short enough that you don't really mind. But Colbert is on the entire show, generally always in character, and that's a much bigger challenge.

As for TDS, it was painful to watch Corddry do This Week in God, and someone needs to send Dan Bakkedahl to the cornfield. I hope they find a solid replacement for Colbert soon.

Posted by: Royko | Oct 20, 2005 12:47:26 AM

I love Jon Stewart, but I have to balance that with the knowledge that he's just a comedian. I remember being instantly disappointed in him when he failed to ask any critical questions of RFK Jr. (indeed, tacitly agreeing with RFK Jr.'s paranoid fantasies with a "where there's smoke there's fire" comment), until I realized that wasn't his job. (My only lasting disappointment from that interview is that people take Stewart too seriously, thus giving RFL Jr. some kind of credence.)

On Colbert, I don't see anything to be terribly critical of - his show is funny and incisive, in it's own parodic, smug way. For example (paraphrasing Colbert):

“Anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist for constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen…

I don’t trust books. They’re all fact and no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. Because face it, folks, we are a divided nation… We are divided by those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.

Consider Harriett Miers. If you think about Harriett Miers, of course her nomination’s absurd! But the President didn’t say he thought about this selection, he said this:

President Bush: “I know her heart.”

Notice that he didn’t say anything about her brain? He didn’t have to. He feels the truth about Harriett Miers. And what about Iraq? If you think about it, maybe there are a few missing pieces to the rationale for war. But doesn’t taking Saddam out feel like the right thing…right here in the gut? Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen…the gut.

Did you know that you have more nerve endings in your stomach than in your head? Look it up. Now, somebody’s gonna say `I did look that up and its wrong’. Well, Mister, that’s because you looked it up in a book. Next time, try looking it up in your gut. I did. And my gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.

Now I know some of you may not trust your gut…yet. But with my help you will. The “truthiness” is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news…at you.”


That's good stuff, no matter how you slice it.

Posted by: Ali | Oct 20, 2005 12:58:13 AM

A point of comparison is Christopher Morris's anchor persona in The Day Today, which subsequently expanded into the astonishing Brass Eye. (Americans will most likely not have seen Morris in action.)

Anyway, it's a fundamentally unsustainable formula: either you exploit and humiliate the rent-a-quotes to the point that they wise up and avoid you (Brass Eye), or you use actors (The Day Today) and lose some of the satirical charge. The Day Today used actors. And when Comedy Central tried it with 'Crossballs', it fell flat. So one big problem with Colbert is that both the studio audience and the guests are in on the joke. Another is the need to strike a balance between improv and scripted material: one of the hallmarks of the gasbag O'Reilly/Scarborough type is their ability to bullshit on demand. Colbert is obviously a gifted improv, given his Second City pedigree, and I hope that the format accommodates that.

I also hope that the writers take on some of the clichés and hobby-horses of anchor-driven cablenews, such as the obsession with missing white women or celebrity trials. Ideally, Colbert needs a Nancy Grace-style blonde harpy for that kind of segment.

As for Stewart: I think he's on record as saying that he gives media types a harder time than politicians, because he doesn't think it's his job (as fake news anchor) to give pols the grilling that the real news types that should be doing. Still, it'd be nice to have a little more steel, as tonights Louis Freeh interview showed. As someone noted elsewhere, you would have no idea what a useless lying POS Freeh was, just from that interview.

One last comment on Stewart: note that when he does appearances and interviews on other shows -- Larry King Live, for instance -- he never wears a suit. There's a persona involved in being 'fake news anchor' too, it's just that we don't really notice it.

Posted by: ahem | Oct 20, 2005 5:55:21 AM

Colbert's character is great in 4 minutte bursts but gets annoying if exposed to for longer than that. It's the SNL problem all over again: characters that are funny for a skit fall flat when given their own 2 hour long movie. There are great moments on the Colbert Report, but I'd ratehr see those in the Daily Show format than off on their owen.

Posted by: Keith | Oct 20, 2005 9:51:50 AM

I agree that Colbert could easily exhaust himself -- they need to introduce new characters soon or he'll burn out and the audience will get tired. It's harder to produce and maintain this sort of pure parody than it is to produce the broad sardonic commentary that TDS now specializes in (not to mention that TDS doubtless has more resources available).

But Ezra, I think you're overlooking the show's potential for evolution, and the extent to which a variation on this format worked in the past. Remember: the Daily Show under Craig Kilborne (sp?) was much more focused on the host and media-narcissism-as-the-joke than the Stewart-era program currently is. They were making it on a shoestring, too, and it was successful in its own right. The fact that Colbert is vastly more talented than Kilborne makes me like his chances. Now he just needs to find his own Brian Unger, Beth Littleford and A. Whitney Brown (and a spare Stephen Colbert, if possible).

Posted by: tom | Oct 20, 2005 11:49:49 AM

I like the show so far, and fully expect it to evolve, as many others have already noted. One of my favorite parts, as has happened in each of the three guest interviews so far, is when Colbert cracks up, and steps out of character, fleetingly, and just for a moment, we see his real grin, rather than his fake anchorman grin.

He's clearly having fun, and that makes it enjoyable to watch.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Oct 20, 2005 12:50:29 PM

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