Jon Stewart underrates himself as an interviewer, but he’s said that guests on “The Daily Show” are a hedge against the daunting task of scripting an entire half-hour four nights a week. So how did the host and companion Stephen Colbert fare Monday, deprived of their writing staffs? The Writers Guild may grumble about the seemingly prepared nature of Stewart’s opening, but both proved fast and funny enough to commendably riff through a half-hour, albeit with a self-conscious emphasis on the strike that will have to gradually subside or risk becoming too inside baseball, bordering on whiny.
Lamenting that the guild balked at inking an interim agreement with his show as it did with David Letterman, Stewart went without his coterie of correspondents, while citing the “uncomfortable circumstances” of crossing the picket line.
Yet despite bashing the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (or “NAMBLA,” as he put it) and renaming his program “A Daily Show” until the writers return, Stewart also evinced irritation with the guild, albeit comically, during an interview with Cornell U. labor relations prof Ron Seeber, who clearly looked as if he wished to be elsewhere.
Joking that the lack of an interim deal might be attributable to anti-Semitism, Stewart quipped, “The whole reason I got into this business is I thought we controlled it.”
Drawing on his standup resume, Stewart delivered a solid program overall even with the low-wattage guest, conspicuous reliance on self-referential gags and obvious inner turmoil about his predicament.
He also capitalized on clips (NBC’s “American Gladiators” was a natural) as a starting point for the double takes and asides that often punctuate the program — a facility that often makes it difficult to discern, as it was Monday, where preparation gives way to innate timing and almost unparalleled comedy smarts.
On the down side, some bonehead at Comedy Central should be taken directly to the woodshed for prominently running a promo for the show’s website — a big part of what this whole fracas is all about — in the midst of the episode, even as Stewart mocked Viacom chief Sumner Redstone for crowing about Internet profits, joking that the mogul told investors, “You’ll all be dipping your balls in gold.”
Tough act to follow, but Colbert — the performer most gifted at ad-libbing in character with the possible exception of Sacha Baron Cohen — proved more than equal to the task.
Staying in his blustery Bill O’Reilly-lite persona, Colbert managed to highlight precisely what his writers contribute (he came up wordless, for example, when “The Word” feature rolled around) while still delivering ample laughs — playing off repetition of “change” during the Democratic presidential debate and accusing writer Andrew Sullivan of hating America.
Colbert is almost unbelievably fast, but the show is such a high-wire act, even with writers, that he wisely fleshed out the 20-some-odd minutes with vintage clips — something he might feel compelled to do on a regular basis going forward.
With Comedy Central signing back on, all of latenight is now restored, though the sense of queasiness that surrounds the daypart and emphasis on obscure “Who the hell is that?” guests will surely linger until the writers are back at their posts.
When it comes to making the best of a rotten situation, then, Stewart and Colbert can score it as one down, God knows how many to go.