There's a mile-wide gulf between a satirist and a late-night talk-show host. A satirist usually deals in caricature. A satirist has to do the "speak truth to power" routine, critiquing institutions, staying on-message, suggesting virtue by dramatizing its opposite. A satirist can subsist on applause instead of laughter. But a late-night talk show host has a more intimate obligation. He's somebody you invite into your home, usually your bedroom, to make you smile, and help you forget about the horror of being alive. By taking over The Late Show, Stephen Colbert can't just be a public wit anymore. He has to be America's avuncular therapist.
So obviously, The Colbert Report, not just the name but the concept too, is no more. This is a good thing, considering Colbert had burned out on the whole thing. "I play[ed] a character on my show, and he's modeled on punditry, and I no longer respect my model... I don't really know if I could have done it much longer, because you have to be invested in your model. And I am really not," he said in Judd Apatow's book of interviews, Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy.
The central question following his first week as The Late Show host, then, is whether the change was worth it. He's effectively killing the character that made him famous: the insane cable-news pundit whose real personality we could comfortably map to our own political biases. He's vulnerable now. He can't be Stephen Colbert, king of the cartoon pundits. He has to be Stephen Tyrone Colbert from Charleston, South Carolina, by way of Washington, DC, 51 years old, a real person.
That's why you could almost hear his heart beating too fast as he sped through his first monologue last week. He had never done this before. He had never performed without his market-approved character. He had to be earnest all of a sudden. And his first earnest act when he sat down at The Late Show desk as a real person was to pay tribute to his predecessor David Letterman, whose influence on comedy is incalculable and whose outstanding achievements in the field of late-night TV set an impossible standard to match.
The principle joy of watching Letterman's final days, as he openly rode out the clock to retirement, was how little time he had for Jimmy Fallon and what Jimmy Fallon represents: the importance of social media in modern comedy. Fallon is always up, always trying to go viral, always chasing after an anonymous 5 million YouTube hits as much as he is the audience getting ready for bed. If contemporary late-night stardom meant having a breakdance conversation with Brad Pitt, Letterman was having none of it.
Colbert lacks Dave's gleeful misanthropy, but it's clear the new host isn't interested in the tenuous renown that virality offers, either. As his first week went on, and Colbert kept reminding us that he's an affable guy with no interest in being divisive, it also became clear he wasn't trying to play to the TV and the internet at the same time. Colbert's show is leisurely paced, and while it may have stunts (Paul Simon showing up under a pseudonym, Jim Brown being there at all), it is not driven by them. Jimmy Fallon essentially hosts a variety show, a blissed-out New York City–centric reimagining of Pee Wee's Playhouse that could air at 2 PM almost as well as it could at midnight. But Colbert is firmly in the tradition of Letterman and Carson: tell some jokes, put tired people at ease, and try to have authentic conversations with guests.
Fallon's brand of high-concept giddiness can only exist post-viral comedy, but Colbert's approach could have easily existed before it. By and large, the first four episodes felt less like an episode of The Colbert Report than they did an episode of Late Night with Conan O'Brien in 2003 or so, before the baggage of the NBC fallout: goofy, irreverent, and ultimately not too topical.
The Conan stamp showed up more than once. Les Moonves holding a switch to turn on reruns of The Mentalist is a dead ringer for the Walker, Texas Ranger bit. And the cursed amulet demanding Colbert shill for hummus is right out of Conan's playbook. Which is not a problem.
Maybe this is because of Brian Stack, Conan's former right-hand man on the writing staff, who left Conan's side after almost 20 years to write for Colbert. His presence suggests the show will continue navigating away from the minefield of ultra-topical comedy and toward material with longterm staying power. In the first week's big comedic highlight, ostensibly a series of Donald Trump jokes, Trump is never really the punchline—the presidential candidate is just the vehicle that allows Colbert to debase himself with Oreos. That joke gets a laugh even if you don't know who Trump is, or what Oreos are. It feels like classic Conan, and it's brought home by Colbert's impeccable timing.
Meanwhile, Colbert's interview approach has been hit-or-miss because he tries to extract conversations out of the guests—and both parties have to be willing to participate for that to work. This doesn't quite jibe with the "pretend we're buddies, share an anecdote about my new project, plug my new project, be out of the studio in 15 minutes" interview format, upon which many late-night interviews rely. Letterman could get around that with his "dig your own grave" approach, which found him being as rude and caustic to guests as possible, but Colbert doesn't seem to have that level of acidity in his personality. So it was impossible for him to make Elon Musk sound like anything other than a Popular Science feature from 1997, or for Jeb Bush to sound like anything at all. He has to get guests out of plug mode for his approach to succeed. But when he succeeded, with Joe Biden, the result was probably the most intimate, empathetic interview of 2015. Neither of them asked you to listen, and that made it more rewarding.
This is why the real Colbert may very well be a more durable public figure than the pundit Colbert. The line between schtick and earnestness is clearly demarcated, and he can cross from one to the other seamlessly. He can mix verbal wit and 1930s screwball physicality in a way no one has since Phil Hartman on NewsRadio. He's as topical as the format demands without becoming an outright topical comedian.
And if nothing else, he's the antidote to Fallon, who carries himself with the scatterbrained urgency of a party host who tries too hard to make sure everybody has a good time. You know, the one guy who sort of knows everybody, and talks to you for ten seconds before he bounces to the next person, with a manic enthusiasm that's tiring even to bystanders. Fallon damned himself to playing a 19-year-old who spends his time between classes reading BuzzFeed. Colbert doesn't have that problem. His approach will get better with time. He'll age into this show well. It'll probably be better when he's 60. Therapists derive their gravitas from their age and wisdom, anyway.
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