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Reason The episode airs a few hours after publish time; we got a screener.

Photos: Lauren Silberman / Showtime (top); Pearcey Proper / Showtime (bottom)

The Lions In Winter, Comedy Central Late Night Edition

Inside Comedy starts its fourth season by talking to a couple of late-night satirists in transition.

I am a comedy fan and I live in the world, which is why I feel I have no choice but to listen to Marc Maron's podcast, WTF, though I know that even the best episode is going to be 50% terrible because that's the part Marc Maron's going to spend talking. Whenever Maron or his podcast come up in conversation when I'm with my esteemed colleague/spouse David T. Cole, I can't help complaining about how annoying and predictable and tiresome Maron is; whenever Dave reminds me that I'm not actually required to listen to it, I have the brief epiphany that maybe continuing to do so when it bugs me so much is tantamount to self-harm...but then he has on a guest I really want to know more about and I'm right back there, listening to Maron ask for the 400th time, "What'd your old man do?"

You'd think the TV equivalent of WTF would be Maron, but the eponymous star's "heightened version of himself" sitcom on IFC is scripted and relies very little on the interview tics on display in the podcast. The TV version of WTF is, in fact, Showtime's Inside Comedy, which I watch just as wearily and grudgingly (and which returns tonight to kick off its fourth season). "Ugh, why must people who seldom submit for interviews at all agree to do it opposite David Steinberg, the man who never heard an anecdote he couldn't parlay into an opportunity to talk about himself?" I scream to the heavens. "Wait, the Season 4 premiere is Jon Stewart AND Stephen Colbert? GODDAMMIT SHOWTIME UGH FINE YES I'M IN."

There's really no better time to talk to both the men who've defined Comedy Central's late-night programming bloc for the past decade or so: Stewart is about to leave The Daily Show (though this interview, as a chyron notes, was recorded in January, before he'd announced his intention to step down), and Colbert ended The Colbert Report in December. But while the latter is preparing to take over another long-running late-night institution -- The Late Show, from which David Letterman is imminently departing -- the former has yet to make his future plans known to the public, and it's hard for this viewer not to read their opposite circumstances into their manner in the episode.

Granted, it's also possible that I -- a Jon Stewart detractor who's been sick of his smug shit and saying he should cede The Daily Show host chair to someone else (Larry Wilmore, now hosting The Nightly Show in Colbert's old time slot, was my pick back in the early aughts) -- am guilty of confirmation bias, so I'm very interested for all of you to see the episode (we got a screener) and see whether you agree with me that Stewart seems exceptionally weary. Maybe it's just that he's unaccustomed to being the subject of an interview and isn't practised in turning it on to answer questions to the degree he does when he's asking them. Maybe he, like me, finds Steinberg irritating and -- also like me! -- sucks at hiding it. But he barely sits up straight in his chair, and his off-camera uniform of a gray t-shirt (topped with a gray blazer, I guess as a nod to the occasion) just contributes to the overall impression of defeat even before Steinberg asks whether there aren't days when he doesn't feel like interviewing another politician, and Stewart mumbles, "Perhaps a better question would be, is there a day when you think, 'I'd like to go into work today!'...Nothing beats not working."

Contrast that with Colbert, who describes his decision to wrap The Colbert Report thusly: "I always intended to end it before I didn't really love it anymore." Where Stewart slouches in his seat like a dollop of wet cement that's been poured there, Colbert is animated and engaging and warm. The best word to describe him, actually, is twinkly. He manages to radiate positivity without being corny, including when he tells Steinberg, "I was raised not to say 'hate,' and that has translated through my work...I am not cynical." When Steinberg asks him about hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006, he not only launches right into it without hesitation -- though you KNOW he has to be sick of telling it by now -- but gives it so much life and freshness that you'd think the event was last week. Whether he actually considers flopping in front of the president a funny incident that's at least a great story now, that's how he seems...as opposed to Stewart, bitching about critiques drivers have yelled at him as they sit in traffic waiting to enter the Holland Tunnel.

If you, like me, have been turned off in the past by Steinberg's insistence upon inserting himself into his guests' recollections of their lives, I'm sorry to tell you that he is still both the show's host and its director and it's still a failing in him that no one's tried to correct: not only does he shoehorn a reference to his controversial sermons on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour into his conversation with Stewart, but he OPENS his chat with Colbert by mentioning his own time at Chicago's Second City, decades before Colbert was part of the company there. Someone needs to remind this guy he's Canadian because he is really not living down to our national reputation for humility.

And yet, despite Steinberg's deficits as an interviewer, the episode's worth watching for the gap between the two Comedy Central late night anchors who are about to pass into history -- one who's going to be a warm and welcoming host five nights a week on CBS in a matter of weeks, and the other who thinks six shows a year is the schedule he'd prefer. For God's sake, Stewart, get a hold of yourself. Were the reviews for Rosewater really that bad?!

Inside Comedy airs Tuesdays at 11 PM ET on Showtime.

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