Is Colbert Better or Worse Than Gail Collins?

By Mike Dorf

On Monday I gave Gail Collins a hard time for using her column for a not-very-funny running joke about Mitt Romney's dog.  Should I  be equally annoyed with Stephen Colbert, who books interesting guests with important things to say, and then typically uses most of his interview time to make jokes that prevent the guests from saying much of anything, all with the apparent goal of showing that Colbert is smarter than the guest?

A particularly egregious example was Colbert's 2010 interview of Yale law professor Akhil Amar.  Colbert accused Amar of insensitivity to 9/11 victims for coming near Ground Zero with a Muslim-sounding name and then asked him whether "the mom" of an "anchor baby" "has to be here" or whether she can "squirt" the baby over the border to acquire birthright citizenship.

By Colbert's low standards, he was very deferential to retired Justice John Paul Stevens last week and to  Harvard's Larry Tribe earlier this week.  Still, it would not be quite accurate to say that the Stevens and Tribe interviews were informative in any real sense.  They showed that Stevens and Tribe are both good sports and that they "get" Colbert.  But any serious point that either of them made was quickly used simply as the setup for a joke by Colbert.  The same is generally true for guests on Colbert's show.

It would seem way off base to criticize Colbert for not taking his job seriously enough.  The whole show is a joke.  Colbert is a parody of a right-wing talk-show host, right?

Well, yes, but then again, no.  I confess to not regularly watching O'Reilly or any other FoxNews right-wing media personalities, but I have involuntarily seen enough of them to know that their interview segments look almost nothing like Colbert's.  True, many of these right-wing hosts are blowhards.  But they are blowhards with a substantive agenda.  As an interviewer, Colbert's agenda is simply to dominate his guests, mixing in his (parody of) right-wing blather as part of the domination, but in a way that lacks verisimilitude.  By contrast, when Colbert is just "reporting" on the news, he is actively and reasonably closely parodying these figures.  Likewise, his running--and real--bit with his SuperPac does a brilliant job of exposing the absurdity of our campaign finance regime.

So I end up wondering what the point of the interview segments is.  I think perhaps that a show that aims at political satire in the sort of cool, detached way that Colbert and Jon Stewart both do just can't do interviews very well.  They end up being either not very funny (Stewart when he is serious) or funny in a way that, unlike the rest of the show, does not make a satirical point (Stewart when he is being funny, Colbert most of the time).  And on some the occasions when Colbert or Stewart is deferential to the guest, the segment ends up being just a puff piece on the order of Larry King.

Accordingly, I don't feel annoyed with Colbert in the way I am annoyed at Collins.  How could I?  Comedy Central doesn't purport to be the Gray Lady.  But at the same time, if anyone were asking for my production advice, I'd say lose or re-imagine your interview segments.  Not that anyone is asking.