Daily Show fans watched last night's premiere of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central (Monday through Thursday nights, 11:30 p.m. ET) with their hearts in their throats. It was impossible not to feel nervous for Stephen Colbert, who, after eight years as a fake-news correspondent on The Daily Show, has finally landed his own platform, a parody of "personality journalism" chat shows a la The O'Reilly Factor. On the one hand, Colbert can't lose: He's benefiting from basic cable's most golden time slot, with a built-in audience of Daily Show fans looking for somewhere to go (after giving the new Adam Carolla debacle a few chances, I had just started switching over to the last half of Iron Chef on the Food Network.)
On the other hand, the bar has been raised really high for Colbert. The Daily Show is at the height of its powers, coming off a great year in which it became an indispensable part of the political conversation during the 2004 campaign, spawned a best seller (America: The Book) and won two Emmys. It wasn't enough just for Colbert to get a few laughs last night; he had to be as topical, intelligent, and innovative as Jon Stewart, without ever appearing to rip off his progenitor.
Watching Colbert stretch his Daily Show character into a half-hour format sparked an impromptu reflection on the work Colbert has cut out for him. Jon Stewart may laugh at everything and everybody, including himself, but for the most part, we don't laugh at him. On the contrary: Stewart is, quite literally, our anchor, the one fixed point of sanity who watches, bemused, as the utter insanity of the day's news (and of his correspondents, who seem to take it all seriously) swirls around him. Stewart is the guy scanning the headlines and pausing to ask, "What the hell is this? What's really going on?" The whole joke of Colbert's persona is that he deliberately avoids asking those questions, or indeed, any questions at all. Stephen Colbert (or "Stephen Colbert," the character he plays) is proudly ignorant, aggressively obtuse—qualities that make him perfectly suited for parodying the new breed of cable-news bloviators. But by its very nature, the position Colbert occupies—the butt of his own show's joke—seems more difficult to sustain than Stewart's role as the eternal observer.
Last night's show opened with a funny, if slightly overlong, segment called "The Word"—an obvious spoof of Bill O'Reilly's nightly "Talking Points," in which bulleted summaries of Colbertian wisdom appeared down the right-hand side of the screen as the fake anchor enjoined his audience to stop thinking so darn much. "Check gut," read one directive, as Colbert raged against not only the "word police over at Webster's," but against knowledge-gathering in general: "I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart." Colbert concluded this segment with a kind of mission statement for the show to come: "Anyone can read the news to you—I promise to feel the news at you."
A gag in which Colbert chewed out a behind-the-scenes staffer fell flat, and a satire of cable-news alarmism called "the Threat-Down" sounded like it had spent too long in a writers' meeting. But the show's centerpiece—an interview with NBC anchor Stone Phillips, and the subsequent "gravitas-off" in which the two men took turns reading nonsensical fragments of news copy—worked brilliantly. The gravitas-off in particular was a beautifully orchestrated spiral of ascending absurdity: "If you have ever sat naked on a hotel bedspread, we have a chilling report you won't want to miss," intoned a deadpan Phillips, only to be topped by an even sterner-sounding Colbert: "Thankfully, alert gauchos were able to save the llama before it was swept into the blades of the turbine." This segment was the show's first real flight into pure verbal fancy, and the moment in which it seemed to break free of opening-night nerves and really take off.
The interview will be a tough segment to pull off on an ongoing basis; it's neither a sincere one-on-one conversation, as on The Daily Show, nor an Ali G-style stunt in which the interviewee has no idea he's being mocked. Where will Colbert's bookers go to find interesting and willing guests? Celebrities looking to promote a new book, record, or film may fear being made fools of, and even the most oblivious of self-loving blowhards (the real-life versions of the character Colbert himself plays) will get that the show's aim is satirical, and likely refuse to appear. Tonight's guest, Lesley Stahl, will presumably be as game to ridicule her own profession as Phillips was. But once TheColbert Report has cycled through the roster of self-deprecating news anchors, where will it go from there?
Jon Stewart's guest tonight will be none other than Bill O'Reilly himself, providing a perfect lead-in for the second installment of The Colbert Report. I hope Stewart asks his guest about today's very Colbert-esque profile in Newsday, in which an outraged O'Reilly, butter steadfastly refusing to melt in his mouth, pleads with his critics to "stop the viciousness."