It's all the news that's fit to mock

Times Staff Writer

Words matter on "The Colbert Report," the new spinoff of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" starring former "Daily Show" correspondent Stephen Colbert.

The other night, for example, Colbert said he aims to speak in a "single authoritarian voice." As opposed, of course, to "authoritative" -- that self-compliment the real TV news institutions throw around to promote their brands. "The Colbert Report," a comedy show, takes its language more seriously.

"The Colbert Report" (it's pronounced fully French, as in "The Kol-Bear Re-pore") is an extension of "The Daily Show," Colbert's deadpan, trench coat-wearing faux correspondent having blossomed into a character deserving of his own "Daily Show"-like set and writers and a pundit's pulpit.

In the run-up to the show it all sounded a bit hard to get your head around, but in the flesh the show zinged, at least this first week. Colbert, with his young Republican haircut and dead-serious eyes, is a terrifically artful speaker; there may be no better reader of writing on TV than him. He is not doing a version, exactly, of O'Reilly, with his aggressive populism. He is Colbert, punching up O'Reilly's had-it-up-to-here shtick with more descriptive imagery and better grammar. "Put some pants on, America, the truth is knocking at the door!" Colbert intoned Tuesday night. He's rounded out the character with a dash of other influences from the whole up-for-grabs world of broadcast news. Wolf Blitzer's alarmism is probably in there, Anderson Cooper's feel-ism -- and the whole lot's me-ism.

Also, Colbert's green screen talks to him. This week each "Colbert Report" began with a takeoff on O'Reilly's "Talking Points Memo" segment; on "The Colbert Report" it's called "The Word." It's so far the strongest element of the show, skillfully blending media satire and political commentary, a seamless marriage of writing and character.

The word the first night was "truthiness." "Now I'm sure some of the word police, the word-a-nistas over at Webster's are gonna say, 'Hey, that's not a word,' " Colbert said. He deemed this intellectual elitism, a pet O'Reilly theme. "Who's Britannica to say the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? ... I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart." The joke became a riff on a country divided between "those who think with their head and those who know with their heart," which opened up onto President Bush's "I know her heart" comment about his Supreme Court nominee, Harriet E. Miers.

"Notice how he said nothing about her brain," Colbert said after showing the president's sound bite. The green screen echoed: "No thinking."

A certain amount of "Daily Show" smugness bleeds into "The Colbert Report" -- as well written as that segment is, it still trades on a certain Republicans-don't-read, blue-state cocktail party groupthink.

And yet it can feel like a public service given that cable news, at least, is even riper for satire than it was when "The Daily Show" first lampooned TV news. Now the self-parodying nature of the cable news ratings wars has created, in an evolutionary sense, an opposing cabal, on the comedy side.

O'Reilly, by the way, was a guest this week on "The Daily Show," promoting the paperback edition of "The O'Reilly Factor for Kids." He appeared steadfastly docile, a good sport. Stewart got in a few digs, but nobody was harmed in the making of the interview. "Before we get started, somebody told me walkin' in here, you got some French guy on after you makin' fun of me?" O'Reilly said.

"The Colbert Report," executive produced by Stewart, is an ideal spinoff/companion to "The Daily Show"; if Stewart is expert at maintaining a well-worn ironic distance, Colbert, by comparison, puts on night-vision goggles and heads straight into the darkness.

He's dedicatedly in character, the way Steve Coogan was as narcissistic talk show host Alan Partridge on his BBC parody series. "Knowing me, knowing you," was Partridge's tagline. Colbert says: "On this show your voice will be heard. In the form of my voice."

Critics have been asking whether Colbert can keep the format of the self-satisfied blowhard news guy from becoming a victim of its own staginess. Comedy Central has comedians doing character-based shows -- David Spade doing his old "Saturday Night Live" "Hollywood Minute" guy on "The Showbiz Show With David Spade," Adam Carolla doing his old "Man Show" character -- but those creations are designed to be known inside of five minutes.

As a character, Colbert is more a work in progress, a serious talent wrapped around inventive writing. The show in its infancy is throwing out segments with titles -- "The Threatdown," "Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger" -- that make "The Colbert Report" feel like a polyglot of cable news false alarms, with Colbert a dangerously deadpan ringmaster.

Say this, he's exactly the man for the job. You can see the confusion and slight am-I-in-on-this-joke? terror on the faces of his guests, who this week included "Dateline NBC's" properly named Stone Phillips, whom the actual Stephen Colbert has cited as an influence for his Colbert character (it has to do with Phillips' neck and the way he tilts his head for emphasis).

The two had a reading-headlines-with-gravitas face off, wherein Phillips looked into the camera and intoned: "If you have ever sat naked on a hotel bedspread, we have got a chilling report you won't want to miss."

Was he a participant here or fodder? Phillips seemed to have decided he was both. The interview segment might be the show's most problematic, or, conversely, a chance to flesh out Colbert's character even further.

On Wednesday, interviewing Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and now host of his own PBS talk show, the conversation turned serious enough to make you wonder whether the comedy was supposed to have ended. It was a bit confusing, or exciting -- I couldn't tell which.

*

'The Colbert Report'

Where: Comedy Central

When: 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Stephen Colbert...Host

Executive producers: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Ben Karlin. Director: Jim Hoskinson. Head Writers: Richard Dahm, Allison Silverman. Writers: Eric Drysdale, Peter Gwinn, Jay Katsir, Laura Krafft.

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