Media Notes

TV's Newest Anchor: A Smirk in Progress

(Martin Crook - Martin Crook)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 10, 2005

NEW YORK -- As one of the premier fake journalists on the planet, Stephen Colbert is struck by the reaction of those he mercilessly ridicules.

"The most common thing that real reporters say to me is, 'I wish I could say what you say.' What I don't understand is, why can't they say what I say, even in their own way? . . . Does that mean they want to be able to name certain bald contradictions or hypocrisies that politicians have?"

What Colbert does, on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," is use the raised eyebrow, the deadpan delivery, the self-important smirk to mock the vanity of know-it-all correspondents. And the country is about to get a supersize helping as "The Colbert Report" debuts next Monday, following Jon Stewart's bogus newscast.

Colbert, 41, an old Second City improv player, describes his character this way: "A well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot" who "doesn't mean to be a jerk." He apologizes because he's used this language before and is serving up "metaphorical sloppy seconds."

With his promotion to anchor, Colbert says he will draw from the "dazzling hubris" of Bill O'Reilly, along with Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough, plus "the folksiness of Aaron Brown, the way he mulls the news and loves to chew the words. And the sexiness of Anderson Cooper. Certainly they sell him as attractive." Watching O'Reilly and company inundate viewers with opinions, he says, is like witnessing a spectacle "as natural as a gorilla beating his chest."

Stewart, whose production company is launching the spinoff, says, "The challenge of these things is how to evolve and keep it fresh and keep people from being bored with your voice." As for losing Colbert, who will briefly chat with Stewart at the end of each "Daily Show," he says: "We were lucky to have the guy as long as we had him. One year we kept him because we hid his keys."

Colbert says that although "The Daily Show" is a decent program, he jumped ship because "I really think they have shirked the responsibility that comes with the awesome power of basic cable." The new anchor set plays on the egomaniac theme, with virtually every inch emblazoned with Colbert's name or the initial C.

Colbert works in a loft-like building off Tenth Avenue, all overhead pipes and exposed brick, where a bulletin board festooned with blue, purple and pink index cards lists possible segments: "Stephen Settles Debate." "So Awful We Can't Bear to Show You." "Species That Are Screwing Up America." "Kindergarten Sobriety Test." "Stephen Debates 21-Year-Old Self."

Ben Karlin, executive producer of both shows, says that Colbert will begin each program with an O'Reilly-like commentary and that when anything goes wrong, he will stop the show to yell at the errant staffer. Colbert the anchor doesn't trust reporters, Karlin says, so he will rely on far-flung "citizen journalists" to give him the news.

"Those reports will invariably be shoddily produced, poorly reported and sloppily edited," says Karlin, who directs his young staff in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops.

"We don't want any filter," Colbert sniffs. "The correspondent is only going to put his spin on it."

In a play on the O'Reilly-Al Franken feud, a liberal radio host named "Leiber" -- to be played by a well-known comedian whose identity Karlin is guarding like a state secret -- will pop up to torment Colbert.

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