With “The Colbert Report,” Comedy Central has nearly done penance for its recent spate of latenight monstrosities featuring the likes of David Spade and Adam Carolla. The cabler’s “The Daily Show” spinoff has gotten off to an impressive start with a topnotch premiere followed by a respectable second outing that underscores just how challenging it will be to sustain this half-hour high-wire act four nights a week.
Unlike Jon Stewart, who gets to be himself while riffing on the day’s headlines, Colbert actually has to play a character — a pompous, strutting talkshow host in the mold of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who inadvertently abetted the cause with his utterly humorless appearance on “The Daily Show” Tuesday. O’Reilly would visit a strip mall to shill for his book, but this was an invitation he should have politely declined.
Colbert is such a natural at his smarmy-news-guy persona that he should be able to keep the show watchable if the writing holds up. Thus far it’s been extremely sharp — including his “The Word” opening, complete with wry, terse bullet points that mirror O’Reilly’s “talking points.”
“Anyone can read the news to you,” Colbert deadpanned on Monday. “I promise to feel the news at you.”
The guests, too, have been well chosen, with Stone Phillips and Lesley Stahl good sports about letting Colbert pepper them with inane questions. Stahl even joked that she could trash her “60 Minutes” colleagues, noting few of them stay up this late.
The funniest bit thus far, in fact, was a contest between Phillips and Colbert reading “Dateline”-style intros and cappers. “We invited Mother Teresa to respond to these charges,” the former said earnestly.
Colbert was such a standout on Stewart’s program that his absence has been felt there, but the solid bench of correspondents provides a cushion when the host’s at-the-desk material comes up a joke or two short. By contrast, spoofing the single-host format places virtually all the weight on Colbert’s shoulders, and while he’s fast and funny –ad-libbing a line, for example, about “60 Minutes” being a home to Centrum Silver ads — the more confining format makes it more difficult to regularly generate laughs.
Nevertheless, the series opened to promising ratings, and the synergy with “The Daily Show” (Stewart, a producer of both, throws to Colbert near the end of his program) bodes well for finding ways to create an almost seamless hour. At its best, that tandem easily eclipses most of the knuckle-dragging antics on Comedy Central, in addition to being smarter — and certainly more media savvy — than most comedy on television.
On Tuesday, Colbert launched what he described as a “435-part series” highlighting congressional districts, beginning with a wide-eyed Georgia legislator. Not only does “The Colbert Report” look like a candidate to complete the tour, but it might run long enough for O’Reilly and his bombastic cable brethren to ascertain what the joke is and at whose expense it’s being delivered.