Wednesday, February 13, 2008
The Colbert Report
Show: Colbert Report
Audience warm up: Funny but mean comedian
I started out with a show that’s easy to watch: the Colbert Report. Save Letterman (coming up in two entries), Colbert is the only one-man TV show I appreciate but had never seen live. And one-man it is. The writers are still striking, and the WGA members picketing outside are doing it only for the sake of viewers like me. (And principle, I guess.) They’re making no impression on the intern who guides the audience-to-be to wait outside in a line; in fact, she says her crew provides them with daily hot chocolate. [Note: Yes, I realize the strike has since ended.]
We waited outside for about an hour, shielded by the studio building on one side and a heavy tarp against a fence on the other, before being ushered into a waiting room. There the Audience Coordinator, a guy allegedly famous for some web video where he pretends to live in an Ikea, reminded us several times that Mr. Colbert works entirely without papers or a script, and that he really feeds off the audience’s energy.
Then he gushed praise for his boss, painting him as both nice and fallible, the opposite of his TV persona. “I have worked for a ton of famous people, and Stephen is the nicest guy.” He said his boss struggled as an actor, and that things looked pretty dim before he was picked up on the Daily Show, but now, “Stephen’s landed his dream gig. We’re all so proud of him.” The marked distinction between the human actor and the character who shares his name was a theme repeated through the night, which surprised me, given that on TV, Colbert seems at pains to always appear in character.
We were ushered in to a very spacious studio. Seating is stadium-style and spacious, going about five rows back. The stage largely consists of a series of slightly angled walls, angled to create a desk room, an interview room, and two walls of paraphernalia, like a hockey jersey from the Saginaw Spirit, the team with a Colbert-themed mascot. “I Fought the Law” played semironically over the speakers. Other pump-up songs of the evening included "It’s the End of the World As We Know It" by R.E.M., The Ramones’ Blitzkreig Bop, and "Holland, 1945", by Neutral Milk Hotel. The music is obviously designed to pump up the audience, not immerse them in Colbert-ness.
As I think is the norm for comedy talk shows, they sent a standup comedian to warm up the crowd. He also peppered his talk with praise of Colbert and reminders that he was working entirely sans script. He was as funny a comic as I’d expect to see in a club, though he did casually engage in the two pet peeves I have for standup. First, he made a few “you’re in this demographic, so you must have these characteristics!” jokes (here, a Pakistani guy who shocked our comic by choosing to become an accountant, rather than an engineer or doctor). Second, he harassed a member of the audience in order to impress the rest of us (to the same guy: “I don’t hate you because of your accent. I hate you because I cannot stand your fucking hair,” while reaching over to mess up the guy’s hair, which I thought crossed a line.) It was definitely funny, but I’m pretty sure it was a big damper on the accountant’s night. To the comedian’s credit, he was obviously called on to stall for far more time than is usually necessary, and he kept it going smoothly.
Finally, Colbert came running out, arms held high in self-celebration. That’s his thing, in case you don’t watch him. It’s weird to see TV personalities in your line of vision but made up for the camera. Their faces look plastic and their bodies look stumpy. Colbert looked older than my mental image of him.
He addressed the audience. “I’d like to answer some questions before I turn into that awful, mean character.” Someone jumped right in with a Lord of the Rings question. Colbert answered almost immediately with something like: “Yeah, well, Faramir wouldn’t have lost that ring! Twelve thousand years, people! If you read the Similarian—and I trust you all do—you know what I’m talking about.”
As his show is progeny of the Daily Show, Colbert begins with a segment joking about current news stories. Then he went on an ongoing bit, probably his best of the night, detailing that since the nonagenarian leader of the Mormon Church recently died, and apparently had a thing against a group of writers, then it follows that Colbert’s own writers are guilty of murder.
Since we’d been so frequently reminded by the administration that Colbert was responsible for all his own material, we’re left to assume that he comes up with all his jokes and has to meet with someone in the art department to convey that when he does the “Ron Paul is the Pope’s Puppet” bit, he’s going to need someone to Photoshop in a puppet with Benedict XVI.
The interviews were funny but strained for being stretched to make up for lack of written material. The first guest was Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-born writer of the comic book Persepolis, now a very good animated movie in theaters. The second was a heavyset, badly goateed Christian author and apparent spiritual leader, whose theology had something to do with God loving us and being vague. I paraphrase the most interested exchange:
Guy: “God’s not just smiling at us when we’re in church. God’s smiling at us whenever we’re doing what we’re made to do.”
Colbert: [Some sort of characteristic, self-aggrandizing remark.]
Guy: “See? God’s smiling at you when you act like you’re a nine year-old in a forty year-old’s body, because apparently that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Colbert: [Grins silently, stunned.]
The show ended soon after. All was quiet on the set while Colbert reshot a single line of dialogue. Then he put on his sincere face, thanked us so much for being a great audience, and before he finished his sentence, rushed backstage. The Audience Coordinator told us we were a fantastic audience—is there any other kind, I wonder?—and the show was over.
If you have ten minutes and want proof of the extent of Colbert's chutzpah:
Next Thursday: TRL.