By Ken Tucker
Updated January 08, 2008 at 05:15 PM EST

Political-satire junkies received two doses of methadone last night with the returns of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Which is to say, it wasn’t the pure stuff, and, given how long the writers’ strike has endured and how long it may continue, the shows’ entertainment seemed at times created to simulate the old product and ween you off of the hardcore–oh, I’m going to drop this metaphor; you get the idea. Forced by a no-win situation to return to the air, Stewart and Colbert gave us a good taste of what’s to come, for the foreseeable, writer-free future. And one of them fared significantly better than the other.

Stewart maintained that his show’s title was now a misnomer; it’s not truly The Daily Show without his writing staff, he said, it’s “A Daily Show.” There were some bright flashes during Stewart’s half-hour—hearing him blithely refer to Mike Huckabee as “the guy who doesn’t believe in evolution” was a bracing tonic; it’s the kind of blunt phraseology I’d been yearning for some network-news anchor or pundit or even late-night network host to utter these past few weeks, but of course it’s the kind of thing only these Comedy Central guys have the nerve to deliver. And it warmed my heart when Stewart mourned a country that “has to settle for this fare”—and the screen showed a picture from NBC’s moronic American Gladiators.

Stewart did two segments with a professor of labor relations from Cornell, but the questions didn’t have the zing of prepared material. When he asked Prof. Ron Seeber, “Do most negotiations end with a hug?” the teacher shot him a sour, reproving look that reminded us that Stewart was being forced to rely too often on his fallback position, that of the smirky college-boy. Stewart was frequently better than that, but…

Boy, did The Colbert Report blow The—’scuse me, A—Daily Show away. That’s because Stephen Colbert could rely on his fallback position, one that by (un)happy circumstance suits the strike period perfectly: The ultra-loony-conservative Colbert persona enables its creator to show his solidarity with the Writers Guild by making the other side’s arguments seem, well, loony.

Colbert did one punchy segment with liberal-turned-Republican-turned-contrarian pundit Andrew Sullivan (the priceless moment: when Sullivan said “we” are sick of red and blues states in this country, Colbert shot back, “’We?’ Do you have a mouse in your pocket?”). Colbert’s rhetoric—“I have always been anti-labor; I have always been anti-union”—was (and this a paradox he long ago brought to perfection) carefully calibrated over-the-top stuff.

The host made superb use of campaign news footage to poke fun at Barack Obama’s followers, characterizing one shaggy young background supporter as looking like “the lead singer of the Spin Doctors” and asserting that, in general, Obama has a “legalize-hemp organization behind him.”
Colbert even managed to pull off something close to an emotion he and his character usually avoid like the plague: poignance. That was when he had his producer show us quiet shots of the blank teleprompters that would usually be teeming with his writers’ witty words.

All in all, it was great to have both these guys back, even if there were times when they each made clear they didn’t want to be, under these conditions.