On October 17, 2005, Comedy Central debuted the missing link in what would eventually become “the most compelling fake news hour in basic cable.” The new show was The Colbert Report, and it starred faux-pundit Stephen Colbert as a “Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly minion who wanted to “save the world” by imposing his conservative truthiness in our guts, because according to his beliefs, the gut is way better at making decisions than the brain. Despite the doubts of some so-called critics, The Report would last 10 seasons and 1,447 episodes as of this Thursday, when the show will air for the last time. Obviously, we’re pretty bummed about that.
With such a bittersweet TV occasion only three episodes away, a lot of people are looking back on how The Report became such a force in the media, and that begins with the debut episode. What did the critics say about that episode and those that would follow? Well, it’s safe to say they weren’t sold on the early product. In fact, let’s revisit what USA Today critic Robert Bianco wrote in his review, “’Colbert’ tries a bit too hard”…
Unfortunately, in just two weeks on the air, this half-hour spoof of a no-spin-zone type show has already stretched Colbert’s character and the artifice that supports it past its natural breaking point. Colbert was an invaluable part of the Daily Show, but as the whole show, he’s not enough and too much simultaneously.
Much of the problem is that while Colbert shares the stage with his guests, he never actually leaves it. In the eight episodes that have aired so far, Colbert has been on camera pretty much non-stop — doing a mock news commentary in the first half of the show, then interviewing a guest in the second.
Luckily, for those who tire easily, the show is at its best in the first half, where it most adroitly mimics the flag-waving, eagle-flying, patriotic pretensions of its Fox News counterparts. With his finger pointed at the camera and his mind snapped shut, Colbert has the tone down pat, particularly in a bit like “The Word,” an editorial accompanied by a side-screen graphic that sometimes amplifies and sometimes contradicts what he’s saying. (Via USA Today)
Bianco gave the series a rating of 2.5 stars out of 4 after just two weeks, citing the failure of a “tasteless” Rosa Parks joke and his interviews, which ranged from “uncomfortable” to “flat-out awful.” The critic compared Colbert’s spin-off to NBC’s hilariously bad Joey, and he suggested that Colbert would have been better off staying on The Daily Show. Bianco wasn’t alone, though, as the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan had a very valid point that sometimes a gimmick can only go so far:
The biggest question hanging over “The Colbert Report” is whether the show’s sendup of the pomposity and fear-mongering of cable news blowhards will be as appealing in the long term as the satire of public figures and the news media as a whole in “The Daily Show.” Everyone’s seen a broadcast or cable newscast, so it’s not hard to see what “The Daily Show” dissects with such incisive comic flair. Will “Daily Show” viewers know–or care–that Colbert is doing informed satires of everyone from MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann to Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly?
Colbert’s first night as host of his own show was pitched at a fairly manic level of energy; over time, he’ll likely dial down a little and ease into his role as cable’s most self-absorbed host/pundit. By the end of Colbert’s tenure on “The Daily Show,” he had an enviable rapport (sorry, ra-PORE) with Stewart; Colbert’s arrogant, blow-dried, know-nothing was the perfect foil to Stewart’s earnest fake-news anchor. (Via Chicago Tribune)
In fairness, both Bianco and Ryan made strong points, and they were right to be blunt and pessimistic. Fortunately, other critics had more positive outlooks on the show’s potential. The Hollywood Reporter‘s Barry Garron raved about the show’s debut and especially how well it fit with The Daily Show to form “a solid hour of skewered news and punctured pomposity.”
That the two shows fit together so well is neither an accident nor a surprise. Colbert, a Second City alum, was the most senior correspondent of “The Daily Show,” having joined it in 1997. What’s more, his new series is the first project developed under Comedy Central’s first-look agreement with Stewart’s Busboy Prods.
Where Stewart is the eternally bemused and sometimes incredulous news anchor, Colbert is the smug, self-infatuated, condescending know-it-all, a sort of thinking man’s Ted Baxter. While the “Daily Show” is a sendup of evening newscasts, Colbert hilariously mocks the cable news gasbags who are less interested in the facts than how they can be sensationalized and manipulated to support their preconceived social and political philosophies. “If you’re not scared, I’m not doing my job,” Colbert acknowledges. (Via THR)
Variety‘s Brian Lowry even predicted that The Report would have enough staying power to serve as a thorn in O’Reilly’s side for years to come.
Unlike Jon Stewart, who gets to be himself while riffing on the day’s headlines, Colbert actually has to play a character — a pompous, strutting talkshow host in the mold of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who inadvertently abetted the cause with his utterly humorless appearance on “The Daily Show” Tuesday. O’Reilly would visit a strip mall to shill for his book, but this was an invitation he should have politely declined.
Not only does “The Colbert Report” look like a candidate to complete the tour, but it might run long enough for O’Reilly and his bombastic cable brethren to ascertain what the joke is and at whose expense it’s being delivered. (Via Variety)
Much more importantly, fans believed in Colbert’s ability to not only deliver new jokes four nights a week, but quickly become comfortable in his own conservative shoes, en route to climbing under the skin of every so-called cable news pundit that takes him or herself way too f*cking seriously. All of that effort, charisma, hilarity and talent has built up to this week’s final episodes, so let’s hit the rewind button right now and go all the way back to October 17, 2005 to rewatch the premiere of The Colbert Report and review it one more time.
The strangest part of watching this original intro to The Colbert Report is the silence of the audience. Colbert’s fans eventually took on the overzealous style of the typical Married… with Children audience members, with some people even being completely oblivious to their own obnoxious laughter. Seriously, over the years, some episodes were ruined because of the hyena-like cackling. But then, that only reinforced the fact that Colbert and his staff were amazing at what they did. Even if the laughter was obnoxious, it was authentic.
Explaining the Concept
From the conception of the show, The Colbert Report was going to rely heavily on two things – the host’s unparalleled charisma and a giant set of meaty testicles that swung in the face of the fearless and often soulless people Colbert would be lampooning four nights a week. In a sense, critics like Bianco and Ryan were smart to take the side of caution. After all, had The Report been nothing but a nightly farce of the same O’Reilly arrogance and bullshit fake journalism, it would have gotten old. But watching this clip of Colbert explaining the purpose of the show, it’s hard to imagine that this is the guy who would have eventually changed the game by creating his own Super PAC, routinely humiliating gutless cable news pundits and somehow convincing America’s politicians that they wouldn’t make asses of themselves by participating in his Better Know a District segments. I don’t think there’s strong enough praise to heap on this series, no matter how much “Word of the Day” toilet paper I unravel.
I vaguely remember being unimpressed with “The Word” upon its debut. Sure, like hundreds of thousands of people in the key demographic, I was immediately drawn to the stupid brilliance of “truthiness,” but I thought that “The Word” would be a nightly segment, and that would have just gotten old so damned fast. Instead, Colbert widely spread it out among other recurring segments, including the always-wonderful “Threatdown.”
From The Word and the Threatdown, we were treated to a wide variety of hilarious segments, including Formidable Opponent, Alpha Dog of the Week, Cheating Death, Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger, Who’s Honoring Me Now?, Yaweh or No Way, The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude, Four Horsemen of the A-Pop-calype, and Stephen Hawking is Such an A-Hole, among many others. The only problem with all of these wonderful recurring segments was that Colbert didn’t have enough time to send them all off properly. But Lord, if you’re up there listening and you love us, you’ll let a monkey escape captivity today or tomorrow so we can get Monkey on the Lam one more time.
Stone Phillips was a Perfect First Guest
Stone Phillips isn’t the most memorable person that Colbert could have welcomed as a guest. In a perfect world, Bill O’Reilly takes a seat at the interview table as Colbert runs across the stage, celebrating as if he is the only person that matters, but that would have also been detrimental to the joy that we felt watching them trade long-distance jabs over the years. Instead, Phillips provided actual journalistic credibility to a show that’s sole purpose was to rip the machine to shreds, while also showing us that some of the news guys have a sense of humor. Colbert, as his early critics pointed out, wasn’t exactly the best at interviewing his guests, and plenty of the people he’d welcome to his set over the years were definitely terrible at understanding his shtick. But Phillips was a very good first guest, because he played along very well…
Damn it, Phillips, I need to know more about sitting naked on hotel bed spreads. That’s practically my job!
Finally, the First Sign-Off
All in all, it wasn’t a perfect episode, and it was hardly the best. Then again, you try picking the so-called best out of 1,447 shows and deal with the ensuing debate, whether from random people on the Internet or the stuffed animals piled up on your bed, as you may or may not refer to them as the Council of Fluffiness. I give the episode a solid B, for Balls, obviously. Because Colbert would go on to swing his confident pair all over the country, and we were all much better off for it.