INTERVIEW: Factor this: Stephen Colbert is
taking aim at TV's biggest pundits

09:01 AM CDT on Monday, October 17, 2005

Ed Bark / The Dallas Morning News

Here's a heads-up. Stephen Colbert's first guest on his new Comedy Central show will be Dateline anchor Stone Phillips, whose manly "lacrosse player's neck" makes Mr. Colbert feel a little inadequate."I have what might be called a bookish neck," he says in his matter-of-fact fake way. "And I think I'd be so much more trustworthy if my opinions were coming out of a neck that thick."

The bespectacled, always preppily dressed star correspondent of The Daily Show had me with the words "bookish neck." He'll be sticking it out on The Colbert Report, which premieres tonight and will follow Jon Stewart for at least an eight-week trial run.

"I promise to change the world by Dec. 14," Mr. Colbert says in a telephone interview. "Or else I may not get picked up."

The Daily Show's playground is the news of the day. Mr. Colbert will be goofing on all the many-splendored TV pontificators who regularly seem to think they're the news. Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity, Keith Olbermann, Greta Van Susteren, Tucker Carlson, Aaron Brown, Dan Abrams, Joe Scarborough the list goes on and on.

"Shows like mine and The Daily Show are a response to the pervasiveness of news right now, and also the metastasizing of analysis," he says. "With this beast of the 24-hour news cycle, analysis can go on forever. You don't need new information to have new analysis. That's what's taken over the news. The needs of news have turned it into not news, but just a word factory."

This is good for business if you're in the amusement park business. Mr. Colbert, 41, readily admits that "there would be nothing for us to do" if all those cable news channels and dippy showbiz shows suddenly went away."

"What's interesting is when people perceive that we're the ones doing serious news or being significant in some sort of journalistic way," he says. "It feels odd, because it's not our intention to be effective. It's only to be funny."

He salutes Mr. O'Reilly as the peerless prince of pontificators. Or as Mr. Colbert somewhat affectionately calls him, "Papa Bear." Geraldo Rivera has his moments but plays in a different league, Mr. Colbert says.

"In a way, I never think of Geraldo as an anchor, even though he does some of that. He always seems like a crusading reporter to me. ... He's more like a warrior. But O'Reilly is kind of like the big opinion-maker of our age. I keep using him as a touchstone, not because I want to be like him but merely because he's Papa Bear. He's the gold standard."

Mr. Colbert also plans to debate himself in a segment called "Formidable Opponent."

"And you know what? I win."

His best-known Daily Show segment, "This Week in God," will survive in some form, but not under the same title due to "intellectual property" constraints. Mr. Phillips, "a package of assurance and manliness," will be followed by 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl on The Colbert Report's second night. The week's other announced guests are Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria and hyperkinetic stock market adviser Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's Mad Money.

Mr. Stewart will help out by personally "throwing to" The Colbert Report at the close of each night's Daily Show. Mr. Colbert otherwise will be on his own opposite straitlaced Nightline and the opening monologues and sketches on Jay Leno's Tonight Show and Late Show With David Letterman.

"I'm hoping to slip back into obscurity with this show," he says, probably joking.