Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A Time for Truthiness: A Colbert Report Fan Offers Some Constructive Criticism

I've watched, I think, every episode of The Colbert Report. My mother-in-law, Pat, tapes them for me every week (thanks again!) and I consume each episode from the week prior eagerly with my hungry, TV-watchin' eyes. Even when the show's not going so well, I watch; I don't fast-forward. (I do fast-forward some Daily Show interviews, usually the actors, but not Stephen's. Stephen's interviews may sometimes be squirmy, but they are never boring.)

The show's kind of a high-wire act for Stephen Colbert, though he makes it appear easier than I suspect it is. Unlike his old boss on the Daily Show, Colbert plays a character on his show, and, at least on the surface, not a particularly appealing one either. The Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report is a self-involved ignoramus who's casually racist, casually misogynist, and hates bears with a blind, murderous passion. I know that makes him sound like an asshole, but he doesn't come off that way because he does this character as just a thin, ironic veneer over his real self, the Stephen Colbert we all we know and love from The Daily Show. The central conceit of the show is that the Colbert character is intended as a living parody of Bill O'Reilly, and so every time he comes off as an unselfconscious, non-thinking blowhard who's so oblivious he doesn't know enough to laugh at himself, it's a poke in the eye to O'Reilly. (O'Reilly, for the record, has said he's "flattered" by the show. I rest my case.) So, four nights a week, Colbert has set out this difficult task for himself: with a wink and a nod to the real Colbert, make the blowhard Colbert character palatable enough to watch for a half-hour stretch, and also make the whole thing funny.

That he's been successful at all is impressive. The camera is, as it is on The O'Reilly Factor, always trained on the star, and the star is required to entertain his fans (the "heroes" as Colbert calls his viewers) just by talking. Like I said: not easy to do. On occasion, the show kind of trips over itself, usually during the interviews. You can tell sometimes that Colbert wants to break out of his character and ask some actual questions, and other times you can tell when the guest is trying to figure out how to respond to Colbert's ridiculous questions. The interviews can get kind of weird, especially if the guest isn't as hip to the fact the show is satirical. Steve Kroft is a good example. He was on the show last week, and he didn't know how to handle Colbert's character. Colbert was asking him about a recent expose he did on 60 Minutes about businessmen and their companies getting rich off the Iraq War. He asked Kroft, ironically, why he had it out for these good people. This was Kroft's opportunity to sound like the hard-hitting reporter he is and get a little street cred with left-leaning young folks, but instead he got defensive and seemed to back away from his piece, saying it was really just a small group of people inside a particular company, and that nothing was wrong from profiting from war. Colbert did his best to coax the guy into saying what he actually thought without breaking character, but Kroft wasn't getting it. The whole thing was kind of weird.

But when folks do get the joke and know how to roll with it, the interviews are often hilarious, as was the case with CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer who killed when he joked about the Evening News's elderly demographic. I think the strongest parts of the show are the other segments he does about once a week. The "Better Know Your District" segments are uniformly brilliant (the one with the Congressman from the San Fernando valley was great), "The Threatdown" is good stuff, and I also like the bit where Colbert debates himself, though I haven't seen it much of late.

But the segment that I think either has to evolve quite a lot, or get axed altogether, is "The Word". This is the segment where Colbert and the guy running the title generator seem to be working at cross purposes. In "The Word" Stephen Colbert shares his color-commentary on whatever subject, and in the panel next to his talking head, smart-alecky comments appear that contradict or riff cleverly on what Colbert's saying. This is where the comedy happens. There have been some really good Words, but these days, more often than not, they're the weakest part of the show, and this is doubly bad because it's the one segment they do every night. I don't have any ideas on how to make it funnier, I don't really write the funny, but I think it should be fixed up or just jettisoned altogether. Overall, Colbert and his crew make doing the show look easy, but the only time the show ever seems like hard work is during this segment.

After I watched the first episode of The Colbert Report, I wondered, "How long can he keep this up?" The intensity of all of that screen-time and reading all of that freshly-written scripted material directly into the camera, and not only keeping audience interest up without cutting to correspondents or narrating video clips seemed, but keeping it funny seemed like a very tall order, especially four nights every week. Now that I see they are doing it, I wonder "How long will he want to keep this up?" How long will a parody of Bill O'Reilly feel culturally timely and fresh? How long will it still be funny to Colbert? Colbert's a talented guy, and I wonder how long he'll want to inhabit this character; it seems limiting over the long haul. He speaks directly about how hard it is to do the Colbert character here. (It's an awesome interview with Colbert the Onion's AV Club did back in January.)

I know the scratch is rolling in for him right now. I read recently that he just signed a seven-figure book deal for a Colbert Report book (which will probably be in the same vein as The Daily Show-produced book, America: The Book), so it's not anything he'll want to drop anytime soon, but however long the show lasts, it will be interesting to watch it evolve. Right now it's probably some of the smartest, most unpredictable comedy on television, and I hope it stays that way.

Anyway, I also saw this on the ole Onion site, and I thought it was funny in a mean-but-kinda-true way. We really are a dime a dozen. Take a read.


Anonymous said...

So I dont get it. Do you like it or not. Do you want it to fail or keep going? Jeez that would only take 2 sentences. C'MON!

blankfist said...

Yeah, Crane, we've seen the show. It's great. We love it. I was just commenting to my gf last night about the Colbert Report, saying that when I saw the first episode and saw that it wasn't all that bad (the first couple of episodes of any show are typically bad until they find their voice), in fact, it was good. I was worried, because I had seen Colbert stand-in for Jon Stewert a couple of times, and although his comedic timing is fine, he didn't seem all that confident, as if he felt, in an odd way, like the world was thinking of him as a substitute teacher, a surrogate Jon, and that somehow must had tripped him up, because the jokes never hit like Jon's. With the Colbert Report, he's found his own, and it's hiskarious!

Hiskarious, is like hillarious but with a 'sk' in place of the typical 'll'. See, wasn't that funnier now that I explained it?

Anyhow, these posts go dead after a day. Even Crane doesn't read them after they've been published for more than twelve hours.

JudgeHolden said...

Not so. I get an email every time someone posts a comment, so I read them all, no matter which post you put it on. You could go back to the very first one, post a comment, and I would read it.

Yeah, I saw that one where Colbert subbed for Jon -- I think Ralph Nader was the guest -- and it was kind of weird, kinda awkward, but he pulled it off. But as for the Report, don't you think the "Word"s been pretty weak of late?

blankfist said...

He's subbed for Jon more than once. Actually, I remember a weeklong stint, if memory serves. Anyhow, no, I like the ‘The Word’ segment. It’s funny. In fact, the one that was on the other night was pretty funny... I think the word was 'Tense'. Anyhooo...

Did you see the one with ex-FEMA Director Mike Brown as his guest? Hillarious! Colbert told Brown until someone else steps up to take the blame, then he's going to blame him. When Brown said he liked black people, Colbert said he had a funny way of showing it. Dis! And, when he asked Brown what Fema has done to improve itself, and Brown said nothing, Colbert threw it back at him with[paraphrasing], "they got rid of you, right? That's nothing?"

Genius! Oh man, Colbert took him to tast with a smile on his face. I bet Brown could feel those cool droplets racing from under his arms down the sleeve of his jacket. Ha ha.

harwell said...

You know writing a blog criticizing Colbert could get you A) killed B) lambasted C) harangued or D) all of the above.

If I were you I'd hope for D. It's the quickest.

And I'm with Heath. I think the Word's just fine. They can't all be winners, but overall it's a fun segment, especially when he can cleverly talk about taking massive doses of a drug called Fagajizz or Michelle Kwan's Black Cherry Vanilla groin.