When Comedy Central announced last spring that Stephen Colbert, one of "The Daily Show"'s most gleefully pompous faux-correspondents, would launch a 30-minute program of his own, enthusiasm was almost irrepressible. Over the next six months, The New York Times ran three articles anticipating the arrival of "The Colbert Report." David Remnick briefly chronicled preparations for the new show in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section. Comedy Central ran relentless promos for last night's debut. The show's concept, as Jon Stewart explained, was simple: "'In the way 'The Daily Show' is kind of a goof on the structure of news, this is more of a goof on the cult of personality-type shows."
Colbert's gift for parody was certainly on display last night. "I don't trust books--they're all facts and no heart," Colbert asserted during a talking-points segment called "The Word." In true Bill O'Reilly fashion, the phrase "Head Bad, Heart Good" immediately appeared on the screen beside a bullet point. Colbert also introduced the "Threat Down," a top-five list of frightening news stories: "Like any good newsman, I believe if you're not scared, I'm not doing my job." And later, he challenged his guest, NBC anchor Stone Phillips, to a newscopy reading contest of escalating absurdity. "We invited Mother Theresa to respond to these charges," Phillips gravely intoned. "Thankfully, alert gauchos were able to save the llama before it was swept into the blades of the turbines," Colbert one-upped him.
But, despite those high points, "The Colbert Report" dragged through long laughless parts. Why? For two reasons: First, the people Colbert is ridiculing are already widely viewed as cartoonish; and second, he has chosen parody, rather than mockery, as the vehicle for making his point.
Neither problem plagues "The Daily Show," or its previous spinoff, a mock textbook titled, America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. An evening news broadcast shares with a civics book a seeming immunity to silliness. When they are infected, their usual solemnity is brought into high relief (e.g., in America, a photo of Supreme Court justices--naked). Funny in this mode is seriousness betrayed. Unfortunately for Colbert, Joe Scarborough and his ilk are not very serious in the first place. That may explain why "The Colbert Report," at least last night, was not very funny.
What's more, parody is hardly the secret to "The Daily Show" franchise's success. Stewart is fond of calling himself a fake journalist, but that's always been a misleading description. He never, as Colbert and the other correspondents do, pretends to be an inept newsman. He plays instead a wry and perspicacious consumer of the news, who happens, as it were, to sit in the anchor's seat and share his befuddlement with his viewers. At the crux of Stewart's humor is exposing absurdities, not imitating them. He's in on the joke with his audience, and he provides "The Daily Show" a center of gravity in an expensive suit.
This is missing entirely from "The Colbert Report." During his interview with Phillips, Colbert complimented his guest's neck, boasted about his own Emmy and Peabody awards, and debated the merits of different tie knots. Basically he teased him. This kind of light banter is key to Stewart's interviewing technique, but it's usually inlaid with more sincere questions. The balance of funny and anodyne keeps the report buoyant. But in his parodic mode, Colbert couldn't retreat into normal conversation. And his frantic humor seemed to discomfit Phillips, the audience, and the cameraman (the interview was a series of awkward angles and cuts).
Phillips's uncomfortable turn as a guest raises a question about "The Colbert Report": Is it lampooning newscasters, or is it promoting their senses of humor? Up until the interview segment, the show seemed like a straight-up O'Reilly spoof. But O'Reilly doesn't interview fellow cable newsmen; he talks to officials, congressmen, scandal-ridden citizens. He does so with an inane ferocity, while Colbert interrogated Phillips with a prankish, but gentle, buffoonery. So "The Colbert Report" has a split personality--on the one hand, making fun of punditry; on the other, winking along with it. The scheduling of future guests such as Lesley Stahl indicates that this schism will persist.
The funniest moments on last night's "Colbert Report" were send-ups of news stories, not newscasters. (Reporting on the bird flu, Colbert worried about the damage the pandemic will wreak on the cockfighting industry.) But such moments could easily have appeared on "The Daily Show." It turns out that it's a lot easier to make fun of the news than to parody the people who deliver it. Perhaps that's because people like Bill O'Reilly are already parodies of themselves.
Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.