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Just as the Emmy voting period began last week, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" was all over the news, specifically for lopping off the second half of its show title. Stewart is taking the summer off to direct "Rosewater," his first feature-length film about Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari’s wrongful imprisonment in 2009. In his place strolled the cheery John Oliver, with a disarming grin and genuine gratitude that his boss would place the show in his hands for almost three months.
Even if these new, impossibly polite episodes aren’t technically in consideration for Emmys, the timing of the ensuing press blitz seems oddly convenient. After all, "The Daily Show" has won 10 Emmys in a row for Outstanding Variety Series, and they’re probably hoping for that to go up to a "Spinal Tap" 11 this year. But at the same time, Stephen Colbert has been up to his own Pavlovian trickery. The stage could be set, finally, for a change-up in the category.
Last week he held a super-sized episode with Paul McCartney in which he treated his audience to a 150-person private concert. Much like the rest of this season’s "Colbert Report," the bespectacled host stole focus by barely trying. “My guest tonight needs no introduction…so I’ll introduce myself,” he said before bringing out McCartney. Earlier, he’d used McCartney’s foreigner status as a natural segue into the recent NSA whistle-blowing scandal, claiming that as a precautionary measure, they set up cameras and microphones all over the studio to spy on Sir Paul. Colbert had found a way to make McCartney’s celebrity status not only a punchline, but a timely one.
These two moments shed light on the shows’ intentions with Emmy voters. "The Daily Show" wants everyone to know it’s business-as-usual without Stewart. "The Colbert Report," meanwhile, does all it can to stand on its own, celebrating the freedom Colbert has to get even one of the most influential musicians of all time in on his jokes. "The Daily Show" has had a worthy Emmy run, but is it time to pass the torch to Colbert, a man who is already running at full speed anyway?
There will be other nominated shows, sure, but not since the launch of "The Colbert Report" have Comedy Central’s two late night shows been in direct comparison. John Oliver’s "Daily Show" is a fascinating case study: His version of the show is almost exactly like that of Stewart, right down to the way he hunches over the desk and pretends to write notes as the camera spins around him during the opening. The intonation and cadence of his speaking voice is also almost an exact replica of his boss’s.
This isn't surprising given that Oliver is a writer on the show, but what’s lacking is any trace of the “John Oliver” character he played prior to taking over the desk. As a correspondent, Oliver was free to fluctuate between goofy and genuine, playing up the persona of a wide-eyed UK transplant taking in idiotic American culture. Now he’s a prisoner to the rigid structure of the show, solidified over that decade of Emmy wins.
Free from restraints, Colbert has remained as flexible as the putty of Paul McCartney’s face. "The Daily Show" reacts to the news, but Colbert makes it. Yes, his visit with this larger-than-life Beatle was more for entertainment, but his other stunts this year have taken more of a guerrilla-warfare approach to our fragile country.
Colbert exploited the rules governing political SuperPACs, creating one of his own and running silly ads leading up to the 2012 presidential election. When a South Carolina Senate seat became available, he lobbied hard to take over, hoping nepotism would once again rear its ugly head in political appointments. If "The Daily Show" holds up a mirror to the flaws of our country, "The Colbert Report" throws us a flaw parade.
There is comfort in "The Daily Show." Late night television hosts become friends of sorts who tuck you in at night. Oliver can be forgiven for emulating Stewart, much like a new cop or teacher, week one on the job, would adopt successful predecessor traits. He’s doing what’s familiar. And without even trying, he’s shown Jon Stewart to be the guy who insists you stay at the bar for one more beer so he can tell you about how our problems are systemic. Colbert is the guy who blacks out and takes to the streets, mocking other drunks in such a subtle and sarcastic way, they barely register they're a big, fat punchline.
But this was the year comfort also came to "The Colbert Report" -- comfort that no, we’re not crazy, things are really messed up, and this brilliant buffoon/puppet master is willing to embody all that is wrong to make it right.
Everything: Emmy Awards 2013
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