That’s Totally Wrong, Jon

The Daily Show with Stephen Colbert

Serious, hostile, and just a little twisted

Monday night on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (Comedy Central), Al Gore praised “interesting points” made by the show’s senior analyst, Stephen Colbert, including this one:

“The countries that love us—Russia, Britain, Japan—have all been on the receiving end of a good old U.S. of A. ass-stomping. Perhaps the countries that view us less favorably could use one of our patented exploding”—here he made smug air quotes—” ’mood elevators.’ “

Gore didn’t say how the argument had piqued his interest, but he may have been intrigued by Colbert’s trademark hostility, which, as his fans know, the comic keeps at a perfectly steady boil under his persona as a self-satisfied ideologue. Along with Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” Colbert knows how to satirize combed authority without the kind of wackiness that undid Steve Martin and Chevy Chase. What’s left, in Colbert’s performance, is an eager, twisted, overdressed newsman who is controlled by the incongruities of the current broadcast-news clichés more than he controls them.

How’s that analysis for blowing the pleasure of comedy?

What I mean is that Colbert (coal-BEAR) will make you laugh. His segments on The Daily Show—supported by Jon Stewart’s big-hearted deference to his senior analyst—are among the most consistently good things on television.

In his interviews with non-actors (who are reportedly told they’re being filmed by “a news show from New York City called The Daily Show on mrrmrmrrrm Central”), Colbert is terrific. On “The True Meaning of Hanukkah,” he tried to stir up controversy about the holiday’s desecration by consumers of glitzy Judaica. “Is there any hope for this highest of high holy days?” he asked mournfully as the camera switched perspectives and an elegant British rabbi came into view.

“I have to tell you. This is notthe highest of holidays.”

“OK,” said Colbert. “It is. So let’s just move from there.”

“Well, I’ll have to contradict you,” the rabbi said.

“Well, I wish you wouldn’t,” said Colbert primly, only a touch insanely, later accusing the holy man of making up Rosh Hashanah.

At another time, Colbert praised Henry Kissinger: “He understands that there is a time to shake things up, and a time to smooth things over, and, with the exception of the truth, smoothing things over is the thing we need right now.”

A Comedy Central stalwart (he starred on the 1998-2000 sitcom, Strangers With Candy) and sometime writer for Saturday Night Live, Colbert has found his calling on The Daily Show, which he joined in 1997. The show’s other correspondents—lately, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, and Rachael Harris—have successfully taken cues from him, and they’ve tamed, somewhat, the lite surrealism of the show in favor of more controlled caricature. Much credit belongs to the writers: With lines that sound like real news rhetoric, the comics can’t ham it up too hard. Their lines aren’t easy to deliver. (“What was Antiochus’ last name?” “Epiphanes!”) As a result, the actors follow Colbert in keeping their tone firm, serious, and emphatic—like solemn, unstable broadcasters.

Back at the desk, after the “Headlines” segment is out of the way, Jon offers equanimity. And, unfortunately, he can’t resist some wackiness. (The Daily Show sometimes seems to overcompensate for fears that it’s becoming too earnestly political. When Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, waxed old school on the need for a refreshed liberalism, Stewart couldn’t find a way to laugh at her, so he looked nervous and interrupted her.)

But it’s time that the supremely talented Stewart and Colbert, who are now collaborating on a new project, venture to let The Daily Show’s gravity be its humor. Following Colbert’s lead, they both ought to liberate The Daily Show from Letterman-era goof irony, drop the swim-coach shouts and the blank non sequiturs—and keep giving the stage to Colbert. Stewart conducts sharp couch interviews, and he plays an excellent straight man. Together, they’re two straight men—and, nearly every day, that’s funny.