THE BACK PAGES

The secret agenda of Stephen Colbert

In two years, he’s turned a ’Daily Show’ spinoff into a wacky sitcom

JAIME J. WEINMAN October 22 2007
THE BACK PAGES

The secret agenda of Stephen Colbert

In two years, he’s turned a ’Daily Show’ spinoff into a wacky sitcom

JAIME J. WEINMAN October 22 2007

The secret agenda of Stephen Colbert

THE BACK PAGES

tv

In two years, he’s turned a ’Daily Show’ spinoff into a wacky sitcom

JAIME J. WEINMAN

A few months ago, Oshawa, Ont., Mayor John Gray found a way to raise his city’s profile: pick a fight with a comedian pretending to be a TV pundit. Stephen Colbert, who plays a bear-phobic right-wing opinion journalist on The Colbert Report, had done a segment castigating Oshawa for its annual Teddy Bear Toss, and Gray realized he could turn this into a repeat appearance. “I said, hey, why don’t we just issue a challenge here?” Gray told Maclean’s.

That’s how Colbert wound up doing a full-fledged story arc about the hockey feud between the Oshawa Generals and the Colbert-backed Saginaw Spirit, “with their inspirational mascot Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle.” Welcome to the evolution of The Colbert Report, which celebrates its two-year anniversary on Oct. 17. What started as a spinoff from The Daily Show has turned into a wacky sitcom.

When The Colbert Report began, the biggest question was whether the writers could possibly sustain the format they had chosen.

The Daily Show has a group of comedians to back up host Jon Stewart; that group may not be as strong now that Colbert is gone, but Stewart doesn’t have to do it alone. The Colbert Report has no regular supporting cast at all; like the Fox News and MSNBC shows it’s parodying, it’s a one-man operation. Except for interviews, the regular segments have Colbert alone at his desk, playing the perpetually enraged pontificator. Reviewing the show’s premiere,

Brian Lowry of Variety pointed out that “the more confining format makes it more difficult to regularly generate laughs.”

Instead, the show has managed to generate two years’ worth of good ratings for Comedy Central in the U.S. and CTV in Canada. A sign of its success is its current run of tieins and promotions: this week sees the release of Colbert’s book, I Am America (and So Can You!), written entirely in character, while the show just announced the elevation of head writer Allison Silverman to the rank of executive producer. Silverman told the radio pod-

cast “The Sound of Young America” that the show appealed to her because it’s “about news, and satirical, but also with somewhat of a sketch element that’s character-based.” It’s the character element that has taken over and made the show successful—even to the point of crowding out the satire.

The early episodes of The Colbert Report introduced some ongoing topics for Colbert to obsess over, such as his fear of bears (he usually identifies them as “the No. 1 threat to America!”). But as the series has gone on,

it’s come to depend so heavily on storylines and character traits that they’ve basically taken over (except for the satirical “The Word” segment, which fills only three minutes of each show). When Colbert made a joke about marketing his sperm for artificial insemination—“Stephen Colbert’s Formula 401”—it would have been a one-time throwaway joke on any other show. But it’s become a longrunning story, with Colbert hawking his “premium man-seed” at every opportunity, even cutting away from guest Garrison Keillor for

a singing commercial for the product (“I can’t believe I was interrupted by a semen commercial,” said Keillor). Another segment, ‘Cheating Death With Dr. Stephen T. Colbert,” has turned into a story about the dangerous drugs being pushed by Colbert’s fictitious sponsor “Prescott Pharmaceuticals.” Colbert’s 2006 Emmy loss to Barry Manilow inspired a running gag in which the host shakes his fist in the air and screams the crooner’s name; Manilow recently appeared as a disembodied head and consoled Colbert on losing the 2007 award to Tony Bennett. As with a character on The Office or 30 Rock, you can construct a biography for Colbert’s character based on the information given on the show.

The head writers of the show, Silverman and Rich Dahm, have said they always intended to do a show with story elements. Dahm, a former writer for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G character, told Variety that in writing the show, “one of our biggest tasks has been to develop a voice and a history for him.” No matter what they personally think of current events, the important question for the writers is how would Colbert, the character, react to them. So when the U.S. had a day of immigrant protests, Dahm said, they decided that it would be in character for Colbert to not notice that anything was going on: “He had no idea why his housekeeper and driver and gardener weren’t around.”

What this means is that whereas The Daily Show remains a satire show, The Colbert Report is more like DaAli G Show, Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and other comedies that blur reality with fiction. Just as people tune in to Curb Your Enthusiasm to see how Larry David (playing a fictionalized version of himself, as Colbert does) will embarrass himself this week, they go to The Colbert Report not so much for politics as for the silly situations Colbert gets himself into. Jon Stewart makes fun of politicians, but Colbert’s main target is himself.

The negative side of all this is that the glut of postmodern sitcom material may make the political content too soft. While The Daily

Show may not be in its prime (as Maclean’s suggested last year), it still has some biting satire, and Stewart’s interviews with political figures are sometimes more probing than any news interview. With The Colbert Report, most of the famous political-satire moments—such as Colbert’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, or his interview with pro-war pundit Bill Kristol (“How’s that New American Century?”)— came from its first year; as guests grow more familiar with the Colbert character, they play to that and are less likely to be satirized.

On the other hand, you could argue that the character elements are satirical, because they point up the fact that real cable-news shows are quasi-fictional as well. TV pundits are entertainers, and people tune in to see the development of their personal obsessions and private feuds, like Bill O’Reilly’s feud with MSNBC’s liberal host Keith Olbermann; in that sense, The O’Reilly Factor is as much a situation comedy as The Colbert Report.

Just like a real pundit, Colbert’s character believes that anything he cares about is important enough to talk about every day. When the real Colbert fell and broke his wrist, his character became obsessed with the wrist injury and demanded that real-life celebrities wear “a wrist-strong bracelet for wrist awareness.” It may be silly, but it’s not that much sillier than what actually happens on cable news.

But the Colbert writers have developed these stories beyond their news-satire origins. For one thing, like stories on prime-time dramas, Colbert arcs usually have a carefully planned structure. While segments on The Daily Show are self-contained and built around the day’s events, the Oshawa story was structured to escalate to a climax, just the way a story would on 24 or Heroes. When Gray declared “Stephen Colbert Day” and Colbert turned an Oshawa Generals T-shirt into boxer shorts, you felt that the story had come to a satisfying if bizarre conclusion.

Other stories have been even more ambitious, encompassing not one Canadian city

but large segments of America. In her interview, Silverman cited “the search for Stephen’s new black friend” as one of her favourite arcs: Colbert’s attempt to find a token AfricanAmerican to hang out with (after his previous friend was spotted at an anti-war rally and had to be banished) resulted in letters from applicants, photographs of contenders from all around the country, and finally a climac-

tic interview with the head of the NAACR The show’s stories have become so elaborate that when unexpected things happen, it’s hard for the audience to believe they weren’t scripted. When Richard Branson threw water in Colbert’s face at the end of a pre-taped interview, the story was picked up by the tabloids and turned into a week-long story arc by Colbert (who kept hyping “The Colbert/ Branson interview train wreck”); by the time

the interview aired, it had bloggers arguing about whether or not it was staged, though it wasn’t. Other guests discover that though they’re not told what to say, the host has ways of controlling what’s said. “You do a practice run at 5:30,” Mayor Gray explains, “and he figures out where you’re going to plug in all your little lines, and then he closes the door on those opportunities, so you can’t get a word in edgewise and he’s really controlling the agenda of the show.” Like Ali G or Borat, Colbert incorporates unscripted moments, but only if they stick to the story.

Since these storylines depend on the interplay of real life and fiction, they rely on the willingness of reallife people to play along with the stories, and that might not always happen. Colbert’s quest to interview every U.S. congressman (“Better Know a District”) has been downplayed recently as politicians have gotten more reluctant to talk to him. (Colbert’s writers turned that into a storyline too, sending him to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to demand an apology for keeping her members off his show.) If mayors, senators and journalists ever stop participating, The Colbert Report might have to downplay the story elements and go back to pure satire—and that isn’t the source of its popularity.

For now, politicians are having fun being in Colbert’s arcs (“It just sort of panned out and became this wonderful little story,” Mayor Gray says). So although Silverman said last year that the goal of the show “is to find out, how can satire and silliness live together?”, the new goal of The Colbert Report is to make up lots of silly sitcom stories. And if Colbert doesn’t agree with this observation, he’s welcome to attack Maclean’s on his show. M

Like Ali G or Borat, Colbert will incorporate unscripted moments, but only if they stick to the story