Save for the “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises, TV spinoffs tend to open to withering reviews, then go on to enjoy dwindling ratings and quiet, ignominious cancellations.
Not so with Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” Since its debut in November, “The Daily Show’s” sibling offshoot draws more than 1 million viewers each weeknight, had its contract extended for a year (in a deal that was inked a mere two weeks after its premiere), and scored a seven-figure book contract for its host, Stephen Colbert.
There are, of course, two Stephen Colberts. The better-known version (whose last name is pronounced French-style, as in “coal’BARE”) is an obnoxiously biased TV pundit whose utter disregard for the facts — an ethos he has christened “truthiness” — has never stopped him from reporting the news as he sees fit and grilling major political figures with off-the-wall questions.
His lesser-known doppelganger is a 41-year-old veteran comedy writer/performer who, along with “Daily Show” host John Stewart, is one of the visionaries behind a wildly popular new comedy sub-genre: the fake newsshow.
Born and raised in South Carolina, Colbert got his start as part of Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe before moving to New York, where he helped create Comedy Central’s “Strangers With Candy.” He’s also written for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Dana Carvey Show” and has acted in both TV and film (including the yet-to-be-released feature-length version of “Candy”).
Colbert created his boorish alter ego on “The Daily Show” six years ago, when it was still hosted by Craig Kilborn. “When I started doing this guy, the idea was to do field pieces about something pretty stupid but make it seem important,” says Colbert. “The key to accomplishing that was to be self-important, to raise self-importance into a matter of national significance.”
Colbert says he drew inspiration primarily from Geraldo Rivera (“who can turn just about anything into a crusade”) and Stone Phillips (“for his delivery and gravitas”). “(My character) is not unintelligent, he’s just idiotic,” says Colbert of his character. “It’s garbage in, garbage out. He’s uninformed, and perfectly happy about that. What’s most important to him is what feels right, not what’s true.”
After Stewart was hired to replace Kilborn, Colbert’s presence on the show began to grow, and he soon became one of the program’s most popular characters. It didn’t take long to come up with a spinoff format. “When ‘The Daily Show’ started, the traditional newsshow was by far the most popular format,” says Colbert. “But recently, it’s the personality-driven, 30-minute editorial shows like ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ that have been getting a lot of attention. The plan from the beginning was to make it as much about the host as it is about the news, to create a whole new chain of ideas that doesn’t step on what ‘The Daily Show’ does.”
For the premiere episode, Colbert and his writers introduced what has become the show’s signature element: “The Word,” a spoof of O’Reilly’s “Talking Points Memo.” The first night’s word, “truthiness,” which puts forward the notion that the concept of truth is entirely subjective, immediately become a part of the mainstream media’s lexicon and, in January, was voted “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society.
“The Colbert Report’s” increasing popularity has lured a number of high-profile guests to the show — including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Senators John McCain and Joe Biden, and, amazingly, the embattled former FEMA head Michael Brown — all of whom, for the most part, have been good sports when faced with their host’s agenda-laden questions.
“The show is a daily, ravenous beast,” says Colbert. “I absolutely enjoy what I do. It asks me how to use everything I’ve ever learned about being a writer and performer, and I love the challenge of it, and I have no desire whatsoever to do anything else.”