‘Colbert Report’: Unlikely Leader of the Weeknight

I never thought I would write this, but after three years on the air, “The Colbert Report” is consistently funnier than not only its Comedy Central predecessor, “The Daily Show,” but every nightly comedy program.

When “The Colbert Report” first aired, I wondered how the show would stay fresh, relying on what I thought was essentially a single joke. It seemed likely that “The Colbert Report” would have exactly the same problem “Saturday Night Live” has when it tries to stretch a five-minute sketch into a feature-length movie — it might work at the beginning, but eventually it’s going to seem stale and tired. The opposite has happened.

Colbert has continued to grow in his alter ego, using it as a dependable and reliable comedic vehicle. I’m not sure it would work every night if Colbert didn’t flash the occasional smile reminding the audience he doesn’t take himself seriously. Sasha Baron Cohen’s Ali G and Borat never let anyone in on the joke, and have a shorter (if hilarious) half-life, because no one can live with that amount of awkwardness without turning into Larry David.

The fact that Colbert has succeeded is obviously a testament to his enormous talent and smart writing staff, but also Colbert benefits from the fact that he is still seen as the smaller draw of the two and doesn’t have as many A-list celebrity guests. Instead, Colbert tends to interview a more eclectic group of authors and academics who are easier to engage. Colbert plays the interviews masterfully by tossing a softball question to his guests (knowing exactly what the guest will say) and flipping the response right back to them: an instant checkmate.

The more prepared and scripted a guest is, the more entertaining it is to watch him or her try to squirm around Colbert’s politically incorrect follow-up questions. He’s a master of what trial lawyers call an unfair question (e.g., “Do you still beat your wife?”). The guest invariably has to choose between insulting someone and violating his or her own ideological orthodoxy. It’s the comedic equivalent of “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert and the best nightly comedy on TV.


The views expressed in this blog do not represent the views or opinions of Generations United.