Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell are both alums of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Colbert went on to host his own show whose time slot immediately follows his alma mater, the epononymous The Colbert Report. Carell went on to become the clueless boss on the wildly popular--and hilarious--The Office, the American version. Then, he left that show to become a movie star. I can't express how amazingly awesome it is that both these talented men were "discovered" on The Daily Show, and that as an old person, I have had the pleasure of watching their careers develop. After hearing the news that Colbert is moving from his satirical news show to put his backside in David Letterman's chair, I am . . . sad . . . and also curious: In a comparison of the two, which Stephen/Steven is more successful?
A Nostalgic Look at the First Bang (as opposed to the Big Bang, which is something entirely different but also constitutes a beginning)
I was first introduce to Carell and Colbert way back in the . . . well, whenever it was. I don't remember exactly. They were both correspondents on The Daily Show. They did a segment called Even Stevphen in which they debated various topics.
In a segment I found on Youtube, they debated Christianity and Islam, Carell taking the part of the Islamist (for whatever reason) and Colbert taking the part of the Christian. Their debate goes nowhere, of course, as they both use circular reasoning to try to bolster their own credibility. After arguing whose god is the true one, they decide they are getting nowhere, and this exchange occurs:
Carell: You know, there is one way of settling this.
Carell: Alright. There are two ways of settling this.
After a "pray-off" in which neither is smote (smited?) for his blasphemous beliefs, the two decide to explore what they have in common. Jon Stewart interrupts, and Colbert and Carell light upon what both religions share--a distaste for Jews, who are "scheming."
Okay, so I went into this little anecdote partly to give some background on the two actors/comedians but mostly just because I love the philosophy of the fake news on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, the clever writing, the satire, and the way they poke a stick into the ridiculousness of the ant pile that constitutes our beliefs and politics.
Colbert and Carell may have met on The Daily Show, (Actually, according to Wikipedia--and we know how credible Wikipedia is--Colbert was Carell's understudy at Second City Chicago) or at the very least, that's where I myself "met" them, but they started their careers long before that.
Again according to Wikipedia (which I will be using for the bulk of my research because I am being lazy and am not too worried about strictly "factual" information), Colbert began his career doing improv for something called Annoyance Theatre (Stephen Colbert annoying? No! Impossible! [I hope you're reading that parenthetical statement through an appropriate lense of sarcasm]) and then moved on to Second City, which is apparently where he met Carell. He bounced through a series of television shows as a writer and actor, including the weird Comedy Central faux-drama Strangers With Candy. He finally landed on The Daily Show in 1997.
Carell actually earned a degree in history while pursuing improv with a local university group. During his early career, Carell also bounced around several television shows and the improv group, Second City Chicago. He and Colbert voiced the heroes on the Saturday Night Live cartoon series "The Ambiguously Gay Duo." He became a correspondent on The Daily Show in 1999.
Both Colbert and Carell are fabulously well known today, at least in the U.S., but my question is which one has had greater success? They come from very similar comedy backgrounds, their lives intersected numerous times during their career, and--the thing that I find most intriguing--their careers exploded when they joined The Daily Show. So who has made it bigger?
Another weird coincidence of the two performers is that they both left The Daily Show in 2005--Colbert to host The Colbert Report and Carell to star in the American version of The Office. The Colbert Report opened strong with high ratings, but The Office suffered from less audience attention during its first season, only to become crazily popular later on. I can't comment on how much money each earned from these shows--and I know how important a marker of success money is--because I can't find the numbers easily online.
I vaguely remember when Colbert spun off his own show. Jon Stewart would end The Daily Show by checking in with him, doing a quick pre-cap of what Colbert would be discussing on his show. Obviously, this sneak peek was a way to get viewers to stay on for The Colbert Report, but back then, I didn't see how any show could be as trenchant and smart as The Daily Show. It took me a few years to become a fan.
As for The Office, I don't remember during which season I began watching it. I became a big fan and pretty much quit watching it completely after Carell left. He was so wonderfully clueless, ridiculous, and lovable, I didn't see how the show could possibly recover after losing him.
Legacy of The Report and The Office
The Colbert Report has definitely had a huge impact on America. It, like The Daily Show, exposes the absurdity of American politics, society, and ideology. It's even affected the language. From it, we get the term "truthiness," which indicates a belief in the accuracy of an idea without regard to evidence or logic. It was named the word of the year by the American Dialect Society in 2005 and Merriam-Webster in 2006.
There is also the conceit of the "Colbert bump," which occurs when someone or something appears on or is mentioned on The Colbert Report. Afterward, whatever the it or who happens to be sees a spike in popularity. The weird thing is that this conceit is true. According (again) to Wikipedia, Democrats appearing on the show received a bump of 40% in campaign contributions after appearing on the show and Firefox was downloaded more frequently after being mentioned on the show. On a side note, apparently the Colbert Bump is also the name of a cocktail.
Wikipedia actually has entire page devoted just to the cultural impact of The Colbert Report. Here are some of the highlights:
What is most admirable about Colbert, in my unhumble opinion, is that he uses his celebrity to raise money for various charities, such as donorschoose.org, which funds classroom projects.
Okay, so after that substantial list, let's take a looksie at the impact of The Office.
What immediately comes to mind is the punchline, "That's what she said," which Carell's character Michael Scott quips after someone makes an innocent statement, thus making the original statement sound vulgar.
Oscar: You should put butter on it.
Michael: That's what she said.
When The Office was trending, I remember hearing this punchline out in the real world several times.
The second way The Office has affected society is in the premise for sitcoms. The Office is filmed as if it were a documentary. Actors speak directly into the camera as if they are being interviewed. This idea is repeated in NBC's Parks and Recreation. It's probably used in other shows as well, but I can't think of any off the top of my head.
Since leaving The Office, Steve Carell has starred in numerous movies, like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Evan Almighty, Get Smart, Despicable Me, and Little Miss Sunshine.
Like Colbert, Carell has also supported various causes, but it doesn't look like he has drummed up as much support from fans as has Colbert.
So who wins? I think if you were to take a traditional look, Carell would be the obvious winner--he has been able to transition from stand-up to the movies, taking both comedic and dramatic roles. However, as far as cultural impact goes, Colbert far surpasses Carell through his fan following, contributions to the language, and charitable work.
In the end, I look forward to seeing Colbert on The Late Show. I hope the new setting and the elimination of his disguise as "Stephen Colbert" doesn't water down his cleverness.
Word and Book Lover.