Comedy Central continues to make its name as the watchdog to the straight news. With Jon Stewart's ''The Daily Show," David Spade's ''The Showbiz Show," and now ''The Colbert Report," the network is providing viewers with a happy little cynicism hut where you can get takeout mockery and a side of gall.
''The Colbert Report" joined Comedy Central's lineup on Monday at 11:30 p.m., and it was an auspicious debut. The show, starring ''Daily Show" regular Stephen Colbert, could turn out to be a strong follow-up to Stewart's more conventional half-hour, forming a late-night hour that creeps from the sardonic into the fully warped. While Stewart keeps one foot on Earth and rolls his eyes skyward, Colbert skyrockets into absurdity as an out-and-out parody of a celebrity commentator. With his blowhard vocal pattern and patriotic pretenses, he's a living, breathing caricature of Bill O'Reilly.
Indeed, while ''The Daily Show" goofs on the news itself, ''The Colbert Report" is a goof on journalism and its big egos. Early in the first episode, Colbert (pronounced Col-bare; the show is called ''The Col-bare Re-pore") announces that he's not aiming to form his opinions from truth. He declares that he's tired of fact, that he plans to speak from the heart. (On the screen behind him: ''Head bad, heart good.") His philosophy is an extension of the ''No-
One of Colbert's strengths has always been wordplay, which is in full force on ''The Colbert Report" and gives the show an added level of wit. It makes the Colbert character more than just a sucker punch. He introduces the word ''truthiness," which refers to the approximation of truth, and he drops lines such as this one from his opening spiel to viewers: ''Open wide, baby bird, because mama's got a big, fat night crawler of truth." In describing his ideal audience, he said: ''You get it. You come from a long line of it getters." Clearly, Colbert loves the slipperiness of language, something most commentators use to make their points fly regardless of verity. Let's hope he and his writers can keep the lines wily on a nightly basis.
Colbert's guest on his Monday premiere was NBC newsman Stone Phillips. The interview segment was tart, with Colbert facetiously admiring Phillips's distinctive neck and the way he employs it during his TV delivery. It was brave of Phillips to submit to Colbert, who is nothing if not a spoof of Phillips's self-important affect, and he took the ridicule with good humor. Stewart's interviews tend to be promotional in nature, but Colbert is going for something more akin to Ali G, who loves to make his victims writhe in discomfort. It's a riskier approach to guest visits, but with more of a payoff when it works. Colbert and Phillips also had a funny gravitas contest, in which they read faux-news lines with competing emphases.
Like the other correspondents on ''The Daily Show," the arch-browed Colbert has a more stylized persona than Stewart. He plays his part extremely well, but it's a limited role that doesn't allow him to openly have fun or express warmth. It's hard to know if, as with the commentators he's satirizing, his pontificating will eventually wear thin as he works to fill a couple of hours every week. Perhaps he'll bring in other faux talking heads, to break up the show's potential to seem like an extended ''Daily Show" segment.
After this week's promising premiere, let's hope Colbert makes it work over the long run. He's a clever creation, and a necessary one, and he deserves an opportunity to offend as many people as possible with his pompous blather.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.