26.11.08

The Idiot Box: A Colbert Christmas

Where Jon Stewart dices the news with an acerbic wit, Colbert swings a lightsaber of madcap absurdity. I've always felt, underneath his right-wing pundit parody, there's an element of moderation. His questions to particularly liberal guests may be delivered in Papa Bear-esque bluster, but it doesn't mean they're in safe harbor.

But The Colbert Report is less about political or media satire than plain-old goofy comedy. Can you see Jon Stewart blowing off the dusty videos of his old 80s band (or, for that matter, showing us archived episodes of Remote Control)?

It's not just his penchant for self-mockery. As his interview with Terry Gross in 2005 will attest, Stephen Colbert is a comedic anomaly. He's a devout Catholic and a family man. You get the feeling, watching him on screen, that Stephen Colbert is a good, friendly and contented guy. He's not neurotic like Richard Lewis or tortured like...well...every other comedian. He seems to view the world with a sense of glee and humility. It's that charm which has wound him into the national lexicon, from language to the NYT Bestsellers list to arachnology to pseudo-arachnology.

And all this makes Stephen Colbert the perfect vessel for a timeless, good-natured Christmas special.

A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All aired on November 23rd, a bit early for my liking. But by the time Colbert and his host of musical guests were harmonizing their way through "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding", Mindy and I were grinning with holiday cheer.

For those of us raised on Christmas specials, A Colbert Christmas is a wave of nostalgia. It's funny, of course, but the comedy was upstaged by earworming original tunes, and a thrilling appearance by Colbert's three children.

The songs were a bit hit or miss. Toby Keith's jingoistic ode to the War on Christmas, "Have I Got a Present for You", appeared to be a laudable self-parody, but Keith seemed too wooden to laugh at himself. Being super-imposed over nuclear detonations might have given him pause. Similarly, Willie Nelson's appearance as a fourth wise man bringing Baby Jesus a rather Willie Nelson-ish gift was off-target.

Fortunately, those were early in the program, and the music (penned by comedy writer David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne) took a hard brilliant turn from then on. Feist's "Please Be Patient" was slow but strong. Jon Stewart's guest appearance, a duet with Colbert on "Can I Interest You in Hannukah", was satisfying and imparted the sense these guys really like each other.

The highlights, though, began with John Legend's filthy ode to nutmeg, which will have you blushing when you find yourself humming it later on. Colbert and his co-star, Elvis Costello, leads the menagerie of guests on the aforementioned "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding". Maybe it's the background of the nativity and the variety of folks represented, but the result is strangely moving.



Finally, the special closes with a duet between Colbert and Costello, "There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In". The pair rids the room of snark and cynicism, a rare moment of sublime earnestness from a wizened punk and a comedian known for rarely breaking character.

For all its sincerity, A Colbert Christmas still has a biting edge, and that balance is what makes it an instant classic. Here's hoping Stephen Colbert makes his special a yearly occurence...it'll become a tradition on par with A Christmas Story at my house.

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