The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Daily Show vs. The Colbert Report

One of my favorite television shows -- one of the few I've consistently watched religiously over the years -- is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I even saw Jon Stewart live once when he came to Cornell. The premise of the Daily Show is simple: it's a "fake" newscast. It doesn't aspire to be a full-fledged newscast like you would see on your local news channel at 5:00. Rather, it lampoons the day's current events, newsmaker and oddities. It's structured just like a newscast (complete with contributers, in-depth segments, and sound bytes), but it makes fun of what's going on in the news, rather than merely reporting it.

The humor is quite smart, too. For sure, not everyone in the world would get the humor. It's full of pop culture references, biting satire, and jokes that at times, surprisingly, actually require a pretty in-depth knowledge of what's going on in the world (a study once showed that Daily Show viewers were more knowledgable about the news and better educated than O'Reilly viewers). The commentary frequently goes beyond just fun and games, and ends up making very intelligent, non-mainstream statements on the state of the world. Everyone is fair game on the Daily Show -- politicians, common people, and even the media itself. The Daily Show has even won 7 Emmys and 2 Peabody awards.

One of the most-liked contributers on The Daily Show was Stephen Colbert, and in 2005 he was put at the helm of the first Daily Show spin-off: The Colbert Report. As one of the most popular contributers to the Daily Show, his new show attracted a massive audience almost by default. The shows are both based on the idea of being fake news shows, and I think many people felt that The Colbert Report would end up being effectively an extra half hour of The Daily Show.

But that ended up not being the case. Whereas the Daily Show is a fake newscast that makes fun of what's going on in the news, The Colbert Report is more accurately desribed as a parody of the news shows themselves (particularly those in the vein of the O'Reilly Factor). Stephen Colbert portrays a fictional character in the show, rather being himself. He's an arrogant, ultra-conservative, narrow-minded newscaster with his own opinions to push. The show is a satire of the conservative media, as well as conservative politicians. Some news of the day is covered, but there is more of an emphasis on segments and interviews.

Based on the first few episodes of The Colbert Report, I had some positive reactions. First, I was pleased that it wasn't just trying to be a rip-off of The Daily Show. The whole idea of it being a parody of news talk shows was rather original. And one segment in particular -- "The Word" -- was consistently hilarious.

But initially, my overall reaction was actually negative. Interviews -- which are the highlight of The Daily Show -- were horrible initially. In The Daily Show, Stewart frequently asks "hard-hitting" questions of his guests, in the midst of more light-hearted questions. Colbert seemed to completely stay away from any questions of substance, instead trying to keep on building up the fake character he was trying to develop. Indeed, Colbert pretty much stayed away from asking his guests any questions, leading to quite lifeless interviews. The other segments on the show were pretty boring, and in the beginning the whole "ultra-conservative parody" angle wasn't played up as much, there was more of a focus on "arrogant" -- which got annoying fast.

However, since first debuting, I would say that The Colbert Report has improved significantly. The interviews in particular are a lot smarter. Guests seem to be much better picked -- for instance, pairing up anti-Bush and ultra-liberal personalities against Colbert's fake character. In this setting, the contrast works amazingly well, and we even get some interesting conversations now and then. And overall, Colbert seems to be a lot more comfortable in his parody of O'Reilly-types now, focusing more on being narrow-minded and ultra-conservative. In this world where most of the media seems to fit that mold (but never cracks a laugh), it's very refreshing to see it to such a humorous extreme.

The Colbert Report has a lot of potential. Especially if it continues to focus more on being a parody of a news media that takes itself too seriously. I actually watch The Colbert Report by choice now. It's refreshingly different from The Daily Show, so that neither one will likely eclipse the other in quality.

In the end, if you're looking for some smart political humor, try to check them both out.

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