Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report is one of the more critically acclaimed shows in American television history, earning Colbert praise and awards for his satiric right-wing narcissist pundit character. So what happens when Stephen Colbert the person rests that character to take over The Late Show after years of David Letterman ruling late night? Antenna asked several experts on satiric and comic television to comment on his first week at the Ed Sullivan Theater in semi-roundtable fashion.
First, some quick introductions:
- Chuck Tryon (Fayateville State University) wrote for many years at his blog The Chutry Experiment on political television, and is author of the forthcoming Political TV.
- Dannagal Goldthwaite Young (University of Delaware) has published a humongous amount (yes, that’s the official term) on satire and political entertainment, and performs with ComedySportz Philly.
- Amber Day (Bryant University) is author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.
- Nick Marx (Colorado State University) is co-editor of Saturday Night Live and American TV and is currently editing a reader on comedy studies.
- Geoffrey Baym (Temple University) is Professor Colbert himself, having written many of the canonical treatments of Colbert, and is author of From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.
For many of us who have spent the last decade relishing the sharply subversive political satire of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert’s shift to Late Night with Stephen Colbert has prompted a wide array of questions: How would Colbert adapt his sly political commentary to the larger stage of a network show? How might he conduct interviews now that he is not playing a narcissistic pundit? And finally, how might his show rework the tropes of the late-night talk show for the YouTube age?
Many of these questions were answered almost immediately. Colbert’s debut sketch, in which he likened Trump jokes to eating Oreos was an inspired bit of political comedy, one that would have been at home—with slight tweaking—on The Colbert Report. But the segment also signaled a slight willingness to play with the form of late-night comedy. The sketch functioned much like a “cold-open” on Saturday Night Live and tapped into Colbert’s considerable skills as a comedic performer. Colbert has also made an effort to include guests outside of the Celebrity A-list, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and in both cases, Colbert acknowledged the disruptiveness of their technological and business innovations, even while testing the limits of some of their business practices.
But the most noteworthy moment for me during the show’s first week was Colbert’s heartfelt interview with Vice President Joe Biden, in which Biden offered a disarming account of his grief for late son, Beau, while also explaining how his despair was making his decision about whether or not to run for President an even more difficult choice. Because we are accustomed to seeing Colbert playing his superficial persona, the sincere interactions between these two public figures was especially striking. It was—for me at least—a strikingly humane moment, one that used the late-night format to powerful effect by offering us a remarkably frank conversation not just about the grieving process but also about how his life experiences have affected his politics. It’s also the kind of interview that Colbert’s persona might have prevented him from doing in the past.
I know that some critics have complained that Colbert is not pushing the boundaries of the late-night format enough, that the show has not been more subversive. But many of these complaints focus too much on the broader generic formulae—the monologue, the sketch, and the interview—without looking at how Colbert is using these features to carve out a valuable niche that mixes political satire with thoughtful interviews. If Colbert’s satirical pundit was the political voice we needed in the Bush era, his sincere humorist may be the perspective we need in a post-Obama political climate, one that is dominated by the undeniable fakery and buffoonishness of Trumpism.
Dannagal Goldthwaite Young:
For people only familiar with Colbert, the self-described “narcissistic conservative pundit,” from the persona he had adopted for 9 years on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, the Stephen Colbert who we met last week on The Late Show might seem like an entirely new person. Oddly enough, this person, this “new” person, the one who does a clown-like jig and a disco spin to the music of his house band; the one who lets his guests shine while he listens and heartily laughs at their stories; the one who takes off his comic mask to talk to the Vice President of the United States about death, grief, and suffering… this is the real Stephen Colbert.
Colbert was initially trained as a long-form improviser. He’s not a stand-up comedian. And while he is known for his work with Second City in Chicago, his introduction to improv goes beyond Second City style short-form, to long-form, truth-seeking improvisation. As an undergraduate, he performed at iO (ImprovOlympic) at the Annoyance Theater in Chicago under the great Del Close, with a focus on long-form improvisation that emphasized “Truth in Comedy” (a philosophy of improv that Close expanded upon in a co-authored text by the same name).
Long-form improvisation involves the construction of a new reality within a set structure, often, The Harold structure. The Harold facilitates the development of characters and relationships onstage, and encourages players to think beyond his or her own character or scene. The Harold involves 1) a group “opening,” 2) three separate scenes, 3) a group game, unrelated to the scenes, 4) a second set of scenes offered to heighten the first set of three, 5) another group game, and 6) a final set of scenes to unify and resolve plot points from the earlier scenes. Within that structure, relationships emerge, narratives are constructed, characters are heightened and secrets are often revealed. But the beautiful – almost magical – element of the Harold is the third set of scenes that unite the characters and plots from the initial seemingly unrelated scenes.
To do this requires emotional honesty onstage. It also requires patience, listening, and a true spirit of “yes, and…,” which, in the world of improv simply means accepting your scene-partner’s offer and building upon it to further the scene and heighten the reality that you jointly construct. Stand-up comedy – the genre of comedy from which many late-night hosts emerge (Jay Leno and Dave Letterman, specifically) is focused mostly on the self – and the audience, to the extent that the audience furthers the energy of the comic.
Short-form improv comedy, the genre performed by ComedySportz and TheatreSports (and used by Second City in the brainstorming and development of sketches), involves improvisation, often within the context of a game structure with a gimmick that shapes the nature of the comic sensibilities that result. This shorter, game-based genre of improv taps into some of the same philosophies as long-form, but the gimmicks and time constraints can encourage more self-focused play, and can limit the kind of “collaborative discoveries” that happen through long-form.
It is the honesty – the truth in comedy – that I think are striking in the way that Colbert is approaching his new show. In the monologue of his second show, when he told the story of how the premier had gone so over time that CBS wasn’t sure if it would make it to the air – you got the sense that Colbert was sharing an honest moment of performer panic with us – the audience at home. Even in the way he interacts with his house band, John Batiste and Stay Human, it is with the spirit of deference and collaboration so typical of improv work.
And in no place can we see his improv roots more clearly than in how Colbert conducts his guest interviews. While some late-night hosts might mug for the camera or be focused on the next question while the guest answers the first, Colbert is present in the moment, responding to the “offer” given by the guest, and heightening the “scene” either emotionally or comically. It is not an accident that Biden opened up to Colbert as he did.
Just as is true of the comic structure of The Harold, Colbert’s show can be thought of as a new long-form comic structure in which “relationships emerge, narratives are constructed, characters are heightened and secrets are revealed.” I can’t wait to see what unfolds in the next scene.
I will admit that I have never been a fan of traditional late-night shows, so when Colbert announced his impending move to the CBS slot, I worried that he and I might be parting ways. I am happy to report, however, that I have been buoyed by much of the material emerging from these early episodes and I anticipate that the program will hold onto its real estate on my DVR. My relief does not stem from Colbert’s intervention in the form. As Chuck points out, he hews to the well-established formula for late-night programs fairly closely. But what he brings to the format are all of the prodigious strengths he spent years honing on The Colbert Report.
In fact, I would argue that his persona as host of The Late Show is remarkably similar to that of The Colbert Report. This is because, even when playing a blowhard conservative pundit, Colbert was always able to winkingly allow his real self to shine through. It was never difficult to discern what his own opinion was on a particular issue, as he used his character to either tear open inconsistencies and hypocrisies, or to allow a guest he respected to put her best foot forward. His giddy exuberance was also never far from the surface. And, as Danna explains, it is his training in improvisation which allowed him to hold it all together, expertly responding to an interviewee’s statements while maintaining his character.
Thus far on The Late Show, the strongest segments have been the monologues in which Colbert made use of his keen satirist’s voice and the interviews in which he has drawn on his own interest and engagement with the guest’s work. The least interesting bits, in my opinion, have been those that were scripted to appear spontaneous – such as some forced repartee with the band, or pre-scripted goofy interludes like the one in which a tennis champion lobbed balls at the host (which just looked like it hurt). On the other hand, when Colbert seemed to be enjoying the moment, eagerly collaborating with Stephen King on a hypothetical horror plot involving thinly veiled references to Donald Trump, or dancing wildly to a Paul Simon song, it was hard not to get vicariously caught in the enthusiasm.
Ultimately, it is the personality of the host that sets the tone for individual late night programs and is likely the element that most strongly attracts or repels viewers. My enjoyment in the show is partially determined by the fact that when Colbert makes lewd jokes, they don’t come in the form of a “va va voom” directed at female guests (a la David Letterman). Rather, they consist of self-deprecating humor about his lack of underwear, or veer toward gentle gross-out jibes directed at figures like Donald Trump (whose carpet presumably does not match the drapes). Colbert’ s personality as someone who is intellectually curious, quick-witted, open-hearted, and hyper-sensitive to hypocrisies is what carried the last show and likewise what will carry this one.
I’ll temper the hotness of this take by saying that it’s early, and although the Colbert Late Show hasn’t been great in its first two weeks, I’m certain it will be eventually. The Colbert Report was our most important satirical documentation of Bush-era economic and cultural policy, so I’m hopeful The Late Show can rekindle some of that critical edge, if only to counterbalance Fallon’s pandering. Colbert the Late Show host is much more Ernie Kovacs than David Letterman, though, so he’s unlikely to hold up the same cracked mirror to celebrity culture that Dave did. Instead, early episodes indicate that his primary target will be television itself, whatever we all disagree that is nowadays.
The Late Show is mercifully light on monologue and quickly moves Colbert behind a desk so that he can talk politics. These segments have been funny (e.g. the Oreo bit), if a little transparent in their network-notey-ness to keep it up with the Trump talk. Colbert’s real venue for innovation seems like it could come in the interview segments, where (as Danna notes), Colbert’s improv training looms large, an approach the comedian mentioned many times in the run up to this fall. If the explosion of interview-based comedy podcasts is any indication, there remains an appetite for inventive and unpredictable exchanges between two humans talking to one another. Colbert highlighted one end of his emotional range in last week’s Biden appearance, and one has to wonder where else he can go with game guests who discard their promotional boilerplate and follow Colbert down the “yes, and” rabbit hole.
There are no shortage of challenges facing The Late Show, but of all the men (and only men, as Vanity Fair reminds us) recently with skin in the late night game, Colbert has to be the odds-on favorite to be both funny on a nightly basis and memorable in the long run.
Over the first two weeks of Colbert’s Late Show, the underlying theme, or ethos, of the program has become increasingly clear. There were several hints, even on the first night. They were more subtle than the thesis statement Colbert offered on “truthiness” on that first Colbert Report a decade ago (“anyone can read the news to you,” he proclaimed. “I promise to feel the news at you”). On the Late Show, however, the clues have come in bits and pieces. Take the house band’s name, for example: “Stay Human.” Or the musical act the first night, a star-studded performance of the old Sly and the Family Stone hymn “Everyday People.” Or the provocative question Colbert asked Jeb Bush about whether he had any real political differences with his elder brother George, a question that began as an ode to the bonds of family and a proclamation for Colbert’s love for his own brother (who was there in the audience and mouthed “I love you” in reply).
We saw it again two nights later in the remarkable interview with Joe Biden, which, as my colleagues here have noted, offered an unprecedented kind of emotional authenticity – a deep, tender, and serious exploration of tragedy, loss, and perseverance. Before the conversation turned to the recent death of Biden’s son, however, Colbert introduced Biden by proclaiming: “You’re not a politician who has created some sort of facade to get something out of us, or triangulate your political position or emotional state to try to make us feel a certain way. … How did you maintain your soul,” he asked, “in a city that is so full of people that are trying to lie to us in subtle ways?” Later, as Biden openly pondered his own emotional strength in the face of a possible presidential run, the band (Stay Human) broke again into a riff from “Everyday People.”
And we’ve seen it on every show since then. We saw it in the interview with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who discussed the hardship of his childhood in war-ravaged South Korea. We saw it in the less emotional, but powerfully authentic conversation with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who spoke quite honestly about the actual workings of the Supreme Court – the unguarded moments never available to public view when the nine justices sit together and discuss the case at hand. Despite the ideological differences, Breyer explains, there is “never a voice raised in anger” and no one is ever “insulting, not even as a joke.”
We saw it in Colbert’s praise for Bernie Sanders as “incredibly authentic,” because no “focus group in the world” would ask for a candidate like him. We’ve seen it throughout the first two weeks in Colbert’s recurrent digs at Donald Trump, which return continually to Trump’s hollow performance of politics (what Chuck here calls his “undeniable fakery”), his self-evident nastiness, and his deep lack of reasonableness. Finally, we saw it in Colbert’s set up for his bit with Carol Burnett, in which he explains that he usually appears on stage before taping begins to take questions from the audience. That, he ironically suggests (and irony most certainly remains a core device for this iteration of Colbert), is intended to “humanize” him, and “it is important to maintain the illusion that I am human.”
I’m not certain that any of this is the “real” Colbert. Or rather, I’m not sure it matters. What does matter is that Colbert is constructing a deeply humane televisual space. It may lack the cutting sharpness of his ironic interrogation of political spectacle, but it no less provides a momentary antidote to a political landscape and media environment so deeply scarred by simulacrum and spin.