The Humor and Candor of Stephen Colbert
There’s been a lot of fanfare over Stephen Colbert’s new “Late Show” on CBS. Many old fans of “The Colbert Report” have enthusiastically looked forward to his new show—and have wondered how different this new Colbert would be from his snarky, conservative former self.
Before the show started, Colbert gave some deeper insights into his character via a must-read interview with GQ, as well as an interesting article in the New York Times. Additionally, the Daily Beast released a preview of a video interview Colbert did with Father Thomas Rosica (media attaché to the Holy See Press Office), in which he talks more about his Catholic faith.
These glimpses have offered some important insights into the comedian, as we watch this new incarnation of the Late Show. There’s a lot of history and depth to Colbert that he seems eager to bring to the show. While his humor is still there, and it’s good, this is a much deeper, more thoughtful show than many were expecting. He has shown himself to be a thinker, someone who believes humor has a larger philosophical meaning and purpose than mere entertainment. He’s also shown himself to be someone who dislikes political stereotypes, who wants to bridge divides and bring new opportunities for conversation and connection.
The Late Show, at least thus far, has followed these themes: from its opening song, to themes of togetherness and hope scattered throughout the show. It is upbeat, perhaps even on the sappy side at times, but it’s also much deeper and more thoughtful than your average late show.
This thoughtfulness was pretty obvious in Colbert’s opening night interview with Jeb Bush: he asked interesting questions, in an occasionally-funny-but-mostly-serious way. He got Bush to talk about the differences between him and his brother, asked him what unique talents he’d be able to bring to the White House. The mentions of Trump later in their interview were obviously on the more silly side—and they actually were some of the few moments in which Bush seemed to break out of his shell and become more interesting. But overall, Colbert was serious. He had a purpose. As many have been saying, he’s establishing himself as an important voice for 2016.
The nuance, depth, and thoughtfulness continued with Colbert’s Thursday night interview with Vice President Joe Biden. They spent much of the time talking about Biden’s relationship with his son Beau, who passed away earlier this year. They then discussed Biden’s Catholic faith, and how it has comforted him in his grief. A discussion of whether Biden might run for president was included, but it was thoughtful and discrete. Biden told Colbert,
I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president. Two, they can look at the folks out there and say, ‘I promise you have my whole heart, my whole soul, energy, and my passion to do this.’ And I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there. I’m being completely honest.
Colbert replied, “I know it’s an emotional decision for you to make, but it’s going to be an emotional decision for a lot of people if you don’t run. And sir, I just want to say that I think your experience and your example of suffering and service is something that would be sorely missed in the race.”
Then, on Friday evening, Jimmy Fallon interviewed Donald Trump.
Now, Fallon is younger than Colbert, and incredibly goofy. His silly and good-natured personality really drives the spirit of his show. To start the night, Jimmy Fallon dressed up as Trump—complete with wig, red tie, pin, the duck lips, a bit of a spray tan. “I’m like a Greek god that just took a bath in a pumpkin spice latte,” he noted.
He and Trump sat on either side of a fake mirror, and had a conversation with each other—or, supposedly, Trump was having a conversation with himself.
“How are you going to create jobs in this country?” Fallon-as-Trump asked.
“I’m just going to do it.”
“By doing it. It just happens.”
“Genius,” said Fallon. “You, and therefore me, are geniuses.”
Later on, the two sat down more seriously—Fallon behind his desk, Trump on his left, and talked about politics. Fallon noted that, despite the laughter and disbelief that characterized early days of Trump’s campaign, he’s now the Republican frontrunner. “When did it become real—was it always real?” Fallon asked.
“My wife always said to me, ‘If you run, you will win,'” Trump replied. “People in this country are tired of getting ripped off. … I’m an efficient guy, I’ve built a great company … and this is the kind of mindset we need in this country. We need to become rich again, and we need to become great again.”
Fallon seemed to have a hard time with Trump—he was fair and friendly, kept the conversation light and funny, but at times also seemed confused about how to react to or speak with the charismatic businessman. After asking Trump, “What do you think you’re doing that they’re [other GOP candidates] aren’t doing?” Trump began talking about how people thought he’d do a better job… that there was a “movement” going on… that he was regularly filling arenas and speaking to sold-out crowds… by the time he finished, Fallon laughed and said he couldn’t even remember what question he’d asked.
“Have you ever apologized? Ever? In your lifetime?” Fallon asked. “When you were little Donny Trump, did you ever apologize?”
“I think apologizing is a great thing, but you have to be wrong,” Trump replied. He noted his comments on illegal immigration earlier this year, and the upheaval caused by that—and added, “eventually it turned out I was right.” The audience responded with confused, embarrassed laughter… what sounded like a “boo” on the part of some, perhaps.
But Trump was completely in control for the entire interview. He dominated. Fallon seemed like he wanted to perhaps take the conversation deeper, but it was difficult for him to do so. Trump is just as much an entertainer as Fallon. He’s used to the camera, and used to dominating it.
Watching this right after Biden’s conversation with Colbert was fascinating. Because it revealed two ways of doing late night television, and the four different personalities reflected in the two interviews. Fallon is incredibly talented, but he doesn’t have Colbert’s maturity or political seriousness. His show is entirely focused on making people laugh, and he’s good at it—whereas, at least thus far, Colbert is trying to do something a little different. Still funny, but different.
Yet it’s difficult to know whether Colbert would have had more success with Trump. I can’t help but hope that—as we get closer to 2016—he will talk to Trump, and if he can, bring to that conversation the same seriousness and intentionality that has characterized his show thus far. Because the conversation he had with Biden was rare in today’s political climate: it delved deep. And while much of that had to do with Biden’s willingness to be vulnerable and honest, it also speaks to the skill and care Colbert will bring to his new job.