The American Bald Ego

Leaving his perch at The Daily Show, Stephen
Colbert is soaring to new heights of media parody

By JAMES PONIEWOZIK


  HE PLAYS THE DEVIL HIMSELF:  THE
  MILLIONAIRE PUNDIT PRETENDING TO
STAND UP FOR THE LITTLE GUY
Stephen Colbert is sitting in his office, cutting up a take-out salad and telling me what a total jerk Stephen Colbert is. He's a hypocrite. A blowhard. Pompous, superficial and vain. He is "poorly informed but highly opinionated." Colbert is speaking about his on-air persona, the pundit and star of "The Colbert Report", the spin-off of Comedy Central's hit fake-news series The Daily Show. Still, after a while, he stops himself. "I think I need to start calling him Col-bear," says the actor, using the correct pronunciation of his surname, "and me Col-bert. It's getting weird."

Weirder yet, people like that total jerk. In its first two weeks, Colbert's spoof of opinion shows drew 1.2 million viewers on average (The Daily Show pulls 1.6 million), more than double Comedy Central's rating for the 11:30 p.m. E.T. time slot a year ago. The network last week extended the show's eight-week run to a full year. It's a tribute to how well Colbert, 41, plays his gasbag alter ego—or to how annoyed his viewers are with the real-life gasbags whom he nails right down to their graphics. In the opening credits of the Report (pronounced re-porr), Colbert waves a U.S. flag, surrounded by a bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty and hortatory adjectives ("BOLD ... VALIANT ... HELL-BENT").

In person, Colbert is quite unlike his braying pundit. He's soft-spoken and reflective—tweedy, almost—and the father of three young kids. (His show persona, he says, wouldn't be a good dad. "The kids have to be more important than you.") Born in Charleston, S.C., he studied theater at Northwestern University and then did improv work with Chicago's Second City troupe—a pursuit, he says, not unrelated to his childhood addiction to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. He also developed a news habit. As a young actor, he would stay up until 4 a.m. watching ABC's late-night news after gigs. All that went into the smarmy, self-satisfied correspondent he created for The Daily Show, which he joined in 1997.

Many people, Colbert included, were worried that that guy would be too much to take for 30 minutes. (Then again, people blow a full hour on Bill O'Reilly.) But Colbert inhabits his pose so lustily—"I've just swallowed 20 condoms full of truth, and I'm smuggling them across the border!"—that his glee is infectious. Like the band Weezer or The O.C.'s Seth Cohen, he is in the grand modern tradition of the swaggering nerd. (The nerd part, by the way, is not unautobiographical. An ardent Lord of the Rings fan, Colbert is the proud owner of a portrait of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn—drawn in frosting inside a chocolate frame—that the actor gave him after a Daily Show appearance.)

But the job is tougher than it may look. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart essentially plays himself and shares the lifting with correspondents. Colbert is on camera nearly the entire show. He not only gives editorials but also does interviews in character. Like The Daily Show, the Report can be patchy once it gets past the monologue. But some segments are tours de force, like Formidable Opponent, in which Colbert debates himself; rather than tape both sides separately, he toggles between pro and con like a human Ping-Pong match.

Stewart has an inherently likable role, our bemused Virgil in the Inferno of media clichés. Colbert plays the devil himself: the millionaire pundit pretending to stand up for the little guy. He can even demagogue astronomy. When astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson told him Pluto should not be considered a planet, Colbert debated him thusly: "Isn't that just East Coast liberal intellectual ... did you go to an Ivy League school?"  "Yes, I did."  "...Ivy League-educated people telling us what is or isn't a planet?"

There's an obvious political spin to that caricature—recall the 2004 election, when the Bush campaign positioned itself against ivory-tower liberal élites. Colbert's persona has a conservative bent: in his words, he's a reflexive "Blame America last-er" and has a dog named Gipper. But Colbert is also spoofing the general trend in news to pander to emotion, to value graphics over thinking, gut over brain. "That, I think, is the nutmeat of the show," he tells me. "Enough mind. We tried mind for a long time, and what has it gotten us? You know, except for vaccinations." Credit Colbert's gut or his head for "The Colbert Report", but his pontificating deserves a standing bloviation.

© 2005  TIME