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TV's Newest Anchor: A Smirk in Progress

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.

The program will also feature field reports and a nightly interview, several of which were taped when Colbert recently went to Washington to chat up Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and John Mica (R-Fla.). His first guest will be Stone Phillips, who is a partial inspiration for Colbert's on-air persona.

Stewart, whose show has won Emmys for three straight years, is also an executive producer of "The Colbert Report." Which means what, exactly? "I clap my hands, and people bring me fruit," he says. "It's a title, like in the House of Lords."

Colbert's view of Stewart: "He's got unbelievable instincts. It's infuriating how often he's right."

As Stewart's senior political correspondent, Colbert spouts absurdities in stentorian tones that mimic the language of glib punditry. Asked during the Democratic primaries about Howard Dean's supposed temper, he said: "It's one thing to believe President Bush's policies are leading this country to a bleak future of massive debt, increased terrorism and environmental catastrophe, but does Dean have to be so angry about it? It just comes off as petty."

Pressed by Stewart on whether he had actually witnessed Dean losing it, Colbert said: "It doesn't matter what I've seen, it's been widely reported . And that makes it factesque."

He later dissected the theme of the Republican Convention this way: "9/11 and its aftermath bring to mind a time of unprecedented national unity when from the crucible of an unthinkable tragedy there arose a steely patriotism transcending ideology and partisanship. That stuff kills in the swing states. Those NASCAR dads suck it down a feeding tube."

A Charleston, S.C., native who grew up telling stories to his parents and 10 siblings -- "I'm definitely not the funniest person in my family" -- Colbert has been involved in a number of start-ups. These included the HBO sketch program "Exit 57," ABC's "Dana Carvey Show" and Comedy Central's "Strangers With Candy," plus "a bunch of pilots that never made it to air." Colbert was also the voice of Ace on the "Saturday Night Live" cartoon "Ace and Gary: The Ambiguously Gay Duo." The other ambiguously gay voice was provided by another "Daily Show" veteran, Steve Carell, who just had a hit movie in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

Colbert once considered crossing over from the funny side of the street. Back in the mid-1990s, he had a brief tryout as a "Good Morning America" correspondent.

"I was desperate," he says. "I had a wife, new baby, a New York rent, and less and less hair to pull out. . . . I would have done a cooking show with a chimp. It would have been a better fit."

Two years ago, as a goof, "The Daily Show" began running a promo for a "Colbert Report" -- with the correspondent as a bombastic buffoon -- even though there was no show to go with it. A year ago, the day after the Emmys, Colbert and Karlin pitched the idea in Los Angeles to Comedy Central President Doug Herzog, and a few months later got the green light for an eight-week trial run.

Once the new show was announced, Colbert says, he was often asked: "Are you guys going to continue the 'Daily Show' tradition of injecting a note of gravity into late-night comedy?" His response: "God, I hope not."

Colbert, whose office is adorned with a 1972 Richard Nixon campaign poster, admits to being a Democrat. But, he says, "I'm not someone with a particular political ax to grind. I'm a comedian. I love hypocrisy."

When Colbert talks about skewering hypocrites, he makes clear that, like Stewart, he cares about politics as more than a punch line. He recalls Vice President Cheney, in a CNBC interview last year, being asked about having said it was "pretty well confirmed" that terrorist Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi official in Prague -- part of a White House attempt to demonstrate a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Cheney denied making the comment, but "The Daily Show" later aired a tape of a 2001 "Meet the Press" interview in which the vice president had said the Atta meeting was "pretty well confirmed."

"When Dick Cheney says, 'I never said that,' and then we play the tape, why did we do it?" Colbert says. "Why wasn't it done broadly? Because he wasn't speaking about something inconsequential. It wasn't like we were playing gotcha journalism over some quibble. It was over weapons of mass destruction. That's not advocacy journalism. That's objectivity in its most raw form."

So why don't more working journalists do what Stewart and Colbert are doing? Perhaps, Colbert says, "there's a sense that if they engaged in what we do at 'The Daily Show,' they'd be accused of being too aggressive."

Although he recently appeared in the film version of "Bewitched," Colbert, who lives with his family in New Jersey, says he enjoys the structured environment of television and prefers Manhattan to Hollywood. But the man who appears in a series of General Motors commercials doesn't rule out further product peddling.

"I don't think I can sell out any more than Mr. Goodwrench," he says. "I reached an apogee of pimping."

Fighting Fox

MSNBC correspondent David Shuster has opened fire on his former employer, Fox News.

Shuster, who left Fox in early 2002, says it was fine for him to report aggressively on President Clinton but that the network was not interested in tough coverage of President Bush. Shuster told Mike Leonard of the Bloomington, Ind., Herald Times: "I found some reporters at Fox would cut corners or steal information from other sources or in some cases just make things up. Management would either look the other way or just wouldn't care to take a closer look."

Leonard, for some reason, saw no need to call Fox for comment. "Mr. Shuster is a credible source and I write an opinion column," he says, adding that he would have called if Shuster had named names.

Fox executives say Shuster was regarded as a problem employee who tried to undermine his colleagues, sometimes in personal ways, and is bitter over being let go. Shuster says he had friction with some staffers because he "spoke up to management" about what he saw as "ethical lapses."

"Fox's characterization of me as a disgruntled, bitter employee is just a pack of lies," he says. "I was happy to leave Fox News. It was a mutual decision."

Not so, says Brit Hume, Fox's Washington managing editor: "We decided not to renew his contract. It was not a mutual decision."

Tribune Watch

Under budget pressure from its parent Tribune Co., the Baltimore Sun is closing two of its five foreign bureaus, in Beijing and London, where the paper has operated since 1924. Editor Tim Franklin blames a "weak advertising environment" and says the alternative was cutting staff or news space.

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