In addition to watching the NFL playoffs hungover on my couch yesterday afternoon, I spent some time reading the massive profile the New York Times magazine did on Stephen Colbert, a profile that focused mainly on Colbert’s shenanigans as an outlandish fictional character trying to influence American politics with his Colbert Super Pac, but included some interesting background information on how the show came to be. In short, it was originally nothing more than a joke.
Fittingly, “The Colbert Report” itself began as a joke of sorts. In 2003 “The Daily Show,” on which Colbert was a regular, began running brief commercials for something called “The Colbert Réport,” which promised to drive “straight past the issues.” The show didn’t exist, nor at the time were there any plans for it. These bits were mostly just a jab at O’Reilly. But in 2005 Stewart persuaded Comedy Central to think about doing the show for real and Colbert was given an eight-week tryout, which proved so successful that “The Colbert Report,” minus the French accent, quickly became a fixture in the late-night lineup.
The blustering O’Reilly-like persona is an outgrowth of a character Colbert had been playing on “The Daily Show” almost since the beginning, and briefly on the short-lived “Dana Carvey Show” before that: a self-important, trench-coated reporter who does on-location stories in a way that suggests his own presence is the real scoop. The models Colbert had in mind were people like Stone Phillips, Bill Kurtis and especially Geraldo Rivera. “I loved the way Geraldo made reporting a story seem like an act of courage,” he told me.
What’s amazed me, along with probably anyone else who has ever tried their hand at improv, is how Colbert has been able to get into character every night and do what he does for as long as he has. Sure, it’s probably as natural as breathing to him at this point, BUT STILL! And Jon Stewart shares my amazement, apparently…
Stewart also recalled that Colbert worried at first that the “Report” might not be sustainable, and says he kept pointing out, “ ‘I don’t know anyone more interesting than you. You know so much about so many different areas.’ ” Stewart went on: “I’m not at all surprised that the show is good — he’s amazing at it. He’s able to weave a character in a way that’s never been done on television before — rendering this fictional character in 3-D, live, in such a way that he’s still able to retain his humanity.” The extra dimension, he explained, is the other Colbert, the real one. “The third dimension is him. That’s the thing we started to see here. He is so interesting, smart and decent. He’s a good person, and that allows his character to be criminally, negligently ignorant.”
Long live the Colbert Report.