This season, producers of Comedy Central’s Emmy-winning “The Daily Show” struck spinoff gold with “The Colbert Report,” launching yet another topical half-hour hit that added estimable value to the core skein without compromising it.
At least on the surface, this appears to have been no easy task, since the model for the new show seems identical to that of its parent — just swap out faux newsman Jon Stewart from behind that big desk and put in his bloviating former “correspondent” Stephen Colbert.
“The beginning talk was, ‘How are we going to squeeze more funny out of the news in a way that doesn’t seem redundant?'” says Ben Karlin, who led the effort within Stewart’s Busboy Prods. to spin off the skein. (He’s now exec producer of both series.) “We found that having such a specific challenge helped focus us. It ruled out a lot of ideas initially.”
The difference ended up being subtle yet profound. Unlike Stewart, who keeps “The Daily Show’s” topical shenanigans moving by being, for the most part, himself, Colbert stays in character at all times.
Mixing various personality parts of Bill O’Reilly and many other cultural-political pundits across the cable news spectrum, Colbert channels a conservative blowhard, knee-jerking his way along without all the facts, or any real understanding of the issues — kind of like Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella on “Saturday Night Live” three decades back, only far more self-aggrandizing.
“We wanted ‘The Colbert Report’ to look at everything through the eyes of this character, from the inverse of (‘The Daily Show’),” Karlin says. “What does this person believe in? What is the consistency? And is there some joy to be found in the inconsistency?”
Certainly, the results have produced strong ratings for Comedy Central, often retaining most of the audience from its “Daily Show” lead-in.
Its cultural impact is on par with the mothership, too. “The Colbert Report” — don’t pronounce the t’s — has featured such hot-button guests as embattled former FEMA director Michael Brown, and Colbert himself was easily the viral video star of the month of May for his in-character lampooning of President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
“I think it ultimately boils down to Stephen having that rare star quality of playing a character who is somewhat unlikable in a very likable way,” Karlin says.
Still, for Busboy, the spinoff considerations involved a lot more than just putting Colbert in character. The writers’ central challenge became brainstorming enough variety to keep yet another fake news show funny, not one-note, as critics first feared it might play.
“The biggest problem, or challenge, was figuring out a way to make the show’s rhythm feel varied,” Karlin explains. “Our only worry was, ‘Can we come up with enough games to play?’ A lot of the ideas, ‘Better Know Your District,’ for example, came out of this desire. ‘OK, how do we take it out of the studio?’ Necessity drove us to make sure we had enough balls in the air.”
In terms of Emmys, it would seem logical that “Colbert” would challenge “The Daily Show” for supremacy in the variety/music/ comedy series category — the latter has won both the series and the writing trophy in that area three years running.
But since Colbert plays a character, could the show be slotted in Emmy’s comedy series category?
“I think it would take some kind of seismic shift of apocalyptic proportions to get the Emmys to change any categories or view things in another way,” Karlin says. “I feel that this show will live in the variety world, and that’s probably the most appropriate place for it.”
COLBERT ON COLBERT
Comedian Stephen Colbert and his “The Colbert Report” alter ego share the same name, but differ big on everything else. So what does Colbert have to say about … Colbert?
He was recently named “One of the 100 Most Influential People in the World,” by “Time.” Which one of his egos — the real or the “alter” one — is most inflated by the honor?
“My character is absolutely telling more people. I’m slightly embarrassed by the idea they would put me on the list. I actually tell people I was named one of the 100 people who might be able to sell a magazine. My character is telling everyone he’s one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and that as a result, he represents 65 million people — he actually speaks for 1% of the world. He didn’t realize he had such a following in sub-Saharan Africa.”
“The Colbert Report” draws very well with 18- to 34-year-olds. What makes the show so hip?
“Uh, he would say it’s because we’re bringing it hot and hard. I would say it’s because we’ve got a really good lead-in and funny writers.”
What’s the biggest challenge of doing a variety show four nights a week?
“I would say feeding the beast — my writers are working really hard. He would say, ‘Finding new camera angles to shoot me.’ ”
Over the course of the first season, who has learned more about history and current events, comedian or pundit?
“He’s learning nothing. He changes in no way — he’s got a completely unexamined life. He’s like a fish swimming downstream, and nothing sticks to him. He’s got a Teflon brain and the inside of his skull is sprayed with Pam. Nothing sticks.”
Any serious last words from the pundit, himself?
“I think a child should not be allowed more than 2½hours of television a day. Luckily, my show repeats five times in a 24-hour period.”
— as told to Betsy Boyd