Funny turns tedious on 'Colbert Report'

Promising 'Daily Show' spinoff is already stretching for material

Television Review

October 23, 2005|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

The first week of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central offered this curious sight: A fake newsman pretending to be a real newsman interviewing real newsmen pretending to be funny.

That's so twisted we're lucky a wormhole didn't open up somewhere in the universe and suck us all in. Instead, we lived to watch another week of Comedy Central's latest news parody program. I think I'd rather take the wormhole.

The Colbert Report is a spinoff of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, a reliable bastion of intelligence and humor that is watched by 1.4 million viewers nightly -- some of whom rely on it as their primary source of news and have adopted Stewart's political outlook as their own. When a show develops that kind of audience, a spinoff is inevitable, and Stephen Colbert -- who took down vacuous politicians and vain reporters with deadpan delight on The Daily Show -- seemed the most likely of its correspondents to succeed.

But what worked so well in short Daily Show-sized bites wears thin over a half-hour program. Colbert's TV persona -- a megalomaniacal, know-it-all, condescending, blow-dried snob -- was perfect when played against the more grounded, reasonable Stewart.

On his own, though, Colbert has no tether to reality and is left to shoot out of orbit. When he introduces guests and the audience applauds, he raises his arms in the air and runs around the set, taking a victory lap. It was funny on the first night. It was tedious by the fourth.

With just four episodes down, The Colbert Report already seems to be stretching for material. One night last week, he opened his show with a monologue about eating caramel apples for breakfast. OK, but so what? In another segment, he read strange, barely funny news accounts from foreign papers and television. It ended with an inexplicable clip of a German news anchor reading the winning lottery numbers.

If there's humor in there, I couldn't find it.

Colbert has said the show is a parody of news talk shows. His character is a composite of Bill O'Reilly, Stone Phillips, Joe Scarborough and the like. His name is plastered all over the set, which includes an oil painting of Colbert himself.

In an ad for the show, Colbert says, speaking of himself, "Stephen knows that people are counting on him to steer the great ship of news through the channels of truth, past the rocky shoals of subjectivity, into the open waters of ... the Atlantic, I would imagine, since the show is produced in New York."

In another promo spot, he calls himself "a national treasure" who is "woven into the fabric of American life." These bits are funny, and America's pompous, self-obsessed news anchors and talk show hosts are a worthy target. One successful bit last week was a gravitas-off, in which Colbert and NBC's Phillips read absurd news teasers with as much drama as they could muster.

Phillips: "If you have ever sat naked on a hotel bedspread, we have got a chilling report you won't want to miss."

Colbert: "With night falling and just one flare left, would Armando be able to keep the coyotes away from his leg?"

Phillips: "We invited Mother Teresa to respond to these charges."

Colbert had Phillips on his first night, Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes the next night, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek the following night, and Jim Cramer of CNBC the last night of the week. This tests the notion of how interested Americans are in the people who bring them the news.

But anyone hoping to hear something interesting from those guests was disappointed, as Colbert did most of the talking.

The news segments on The Colbert Report were not as cutting or incisive as those on The Daily Show. On Thursday, Stewart used video clips to show how President Bush has changed his justification for nominating Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court. That same night Colbert made fat jokes in a report on obesity featuring McDonald's Mayor McCheese.

Part of the success of The Daily Show is not only its willingness to expose hypocrisy but also the overriding decency of its host, Stewart, who comes across as a real person. Colbert, at least on TV, is Stewart's polar opposite -- inauthentic, arrogant, blustering.

It's an act, of course. It just doesn't stand up over 30 minutes.

One guest last week was able to stump Colbert. When he asked Newsweek's Zakaria why he should care about the world, Zakaria said, "There are funny people in Bangalore who would be willing to do your job for a tenth of the price." The question is, Zakaria told Colbert, are you 10 times funnier than those guys?

For once, he was silent.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

THE COLBERT REPORT / / Airs 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday / / Comedy Central

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