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Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Why 'The Colbert Report' Should Use Correspondents More Often

Last week, comedian Scott Thompson made an appearance on The Colbert Report as his Kids in the Hall character Buddy Cole. Cole, a gay socialite prone to long rants, popped up as Colbert's Sochi Winter Olympics correspondent to cover Russia's anti-gay laws. His appearance was well-received, both with the live audience and online, and Thompson has since appeared two more times as that character. It's an interesting move for the show, not just because it's the return of a beloved sketch comedy character but because The Colbert Report hasn't used a recurring character correspondent in a long time.

Throughout the eight years and change The Colbert Report has been on the air, the show hasn't relied on correspondents very much, but it was something the writers experimented with in the early days. Every late night show has a "figuring things out" period as different segments and styles of comedy are tested out in its first weeks, and Colbert toyed with the notion of recurring correspondents. Colbert's Second City Chicago colleague Tim Meadows played black Republican commentator P.K. Winsome, and David Cross portrayed Colbert's Al Franken-esque liberal pundit rival Russ Lieber, but neither have popped up on the show in years.

During those early Colbert Report shows, the writers discovered that Stephen Colbert was so versatile, he didn't need to have correspondents. While Jon Stewart, who hosts Colbert Report forebear The Daily Show, is a standup originally and uses correspondents to add to his voice, Colbert got his start in sketch comedy and found himself capable of giving the show the same variety that The Daily Show's ensemble has all by himself. Colbert can shift nimbly between Colberto Reporto Gigante host Esteban Gigante, animated sci-fi hero Tek Jansen, or even have a debate against himself in the recurring segment "Formidable Opponent," all stuff that's hard to imagine Stewart – or anyone else in late night, for that matter – doing. Not to mention the show rounding out but continuing to explore the "Stephen Colbert" character at its core. The Colbert-centric segments may have hit harder than the appearances by Tim Meadows and David Cross, so the show shifted more toward the former rather than the latter.

Sure, Colbert Report has made frequent use of the characters who populate the TV crew of the show-within-the-show throughout its run, with the real show's writers playing the fake show's staff (most notably, Jay Katsir as Jay the Intern, Peter Gwinn as director Jimmy, and Colbert's Strangers with Candy co-creator/co-star Paul Dinello as the studio's building manager Tad, who's gotten his own field pieces a few times over the past eight years). But these fake crew members have a different vibe and get less air time than the characters played by Thompson, Meadows, Cross, and Erik Frandsen as the show's German ambassador Hans Beinholtz.

While's Colbert's nature as a comedy one-man-band makes great entertainment, his correspondents still manage to bring a different voice to the show. Sure, Colbert would be capable of playing a gay character to comment on Russia's homophobia, but having the perspective of a real gay guy, Scott Thompson, adds another dimension and some depth to the segments. Colbert is an amazing comedian and he and his writers know how to write for him, but adding another talented comedy person to the show here and there doesn't hurt. Eight years is a long time for any show to be on the air, and continuing to add new elements into the mix and evolve will help Colbert Report from resting on its laurels and becoming stale.

Also, Stephen Colbert's so involved with his show – he's its host, a writer, and executive producer – that he isn't as available as outside comedians who aren't tied down to a daily show. Something like sending Scott Thompson to Russia, like the show did for a segment that aired last night (below), wouldn't be possible with Colbert since he's bound to the studio. He's able to travel to Washington, D.C. for the occasional "Better Know a District" interview, but that segment has taken a shot in the leg ever since Congresspeople caught onto Colbert and have been warned about going on his show, plus said politicians probably don't know Buddy Cole or Tad the Building Manager.

When The Colbert Report was beginning as an offshoot of The Daily Show back in the fall of 2005, it was important to differentiate it from the program that spawned it. The Daily Show has always relied heavily on correspondents, but Colbert uses its recurring characters differently: The Daily Show's correspondents are usually newer comedians playing real journalists who share their same names, but Colbert's are established comedy people, who Colbert usually has a history with, portraying fictional characters. With both series now firmly established as dissimilar entities under the same "fake news" umbrella, it's been safe for years now for Colbert to rely more on character correspondents for field and desk pieces without it feeling like the show's encroaching on Jon Stewart's news team's turf.

Stephen Colbert – both the TV show and the character – quickly became multi-faceted in its own right, but the return of character correspondents is a welcome one and adds some variety to a show that already had plenty of variety to begin with. Whether Scott Thompsons's stint on Colbert ends after the Winter Olympics or not, hopefully the program will continue to use characters in the same capacity. Colbert certainly has access to some great people, having risen up through venerable comedy institutions Second City Chicago and The Daily Show earlier in his career. If this trend continues, I'd love to see another member of The Kids in the Hall, Colbert's old friend Amy Sedaris, or even Colbert in character as a new correspondent pop up next.

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