Before every show, Stephen visits the green room and tells that evening's guest the same thing: "My character's an idiot. Your job is to set him straight."
Easier said than done, especially since the first part's a lie. Stephen's character may ask idiotic questions, but they're so unexpected and diabolically entangling that watching his guests fight their way toward daylight is unalloyed pleasure.
On The Colbert Report, every day is Opposite Day. Because of how his humor works, the audience finds meaning through sustained inference, which is a lot more fun than it sounds. Colbert's riffs are so ingeniously convoluted and deeply weird that the post-reason wingers have no response to him. They just have to absorb the punishment, night after night.
I'd like to add here that Stephen and I are old friends, but I can't. I barely know the man. But like millions of others, I revere him as the class clown I never knew the one without a trace of mean. How he can be so devastating and endearing at the same time I cannot say, but it sure wears well. Look for him to hold down this spot on TIME's list for years to come.
Trudeau is an American cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Doonesbury