(Every week on late-night round-up, one of our writers watches a week of one late-night talk show. This week, Meredith Blake watches The Colbert Report. Next week: Jimmy Fallon.)
There are certain binaries that divide us as a people: John or Paul? Yankees or Red Sox? Ginger or Marianne? How you answer these questions says a great deal about your cultural values, or so the theory goes. I’d add another one to the list: Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert? Among a certain breed of college-educated, left-leaning coastal-dwellers, at least, this is an increasingly divisive question. Stewart is certainly the bigger star, the headline-maker, the conscience of liberal America, a latter-day Edward R. Murrow, a voice of reason in our increasingly irrational media atmosphere, yada, yada, yada. He is all of these things, I suppose, but that's also part of the problem. Stewart loves being influential, yet often when he's pressed to take a stance on a truly divisive issue, he demurs. “I’m just a comedian,” he insists. Yeah, sure you are.
Personally, I’ve always been partial to Mr. Colbert. It’s an affinity that dates back to his days playing closeted history teacher Chuck Noblet on the essential Strangers With Candy, and has grown in almost direct proportion to Stewart’s increasingly inflated sense of importance. Now, I’ll give credit where it’s due: The Daily Show is brilliant and groundbreaking, but unlike many of my peers, I don’t just see The Colbert Report as the quirkier offshoot its more acclaimed lead-in. To use an admittedly hyperbolic metaphor that the Catholic Colbert might appreciate, he is Jesus to Stewart’s John the Baptist. Stewart had to come first, but Colbert is, in most ways, superior—as a political commentator, as a comedian, even as a quasi-journalist.
As anyone who’s ever watched the show knows, Stephen Colbert plays “Stephen Colbert,” a character that began as an obvious riff on arrogant conservative blowhards like Bill O’Reilly. It was a conceit that seemed limited, too tied to specific people to work in the long run. Yet over the years, “Colbert” has become more than just a riff on the O’Reillys and Hannitys of the world. Earlier this week, Jason Zinoman wrote a great piece in the New York Times about the evolution of political impersonations on SNL. Zinoman lamented the fact that contemporary performers like Fred Armisen are too concerned with nailing specific speech patterns, rather than creating memorable characters as Dana Carvey did with George H.W. Bush. I kept thinking about that this week as I watched Colbert, who’s become a deluded, chronically grandiose character who works in his own right, not merely as a piss-take of Fox News pundits.
The funny thing is, even though his character is an explicit spoof of various cable-news personalities, Colbert spends way less time on media analysis than does Stewart. Likewise, Stewart relies perhaps too much on heavily edited montages to make his point. With targets like Fox News and the current crop of Republican candidates, all too often this is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Colbert, on the other hand, rips conservatives by taking their mindset to its most absurd extreme. I had a college professor who liked to say that the best way to dismantle the master’s house was using the master’s tools (she was paraphrasing the poet Audre Lorde), and that’s what Colbert does so effectively. He completely inhabits the bombastic conservative point of view, revealing how totally ridiculous (not to mention callous, xenophobic, and intolerant) it can be.
This is most obvious in Colbert's use of language. The conventional wisdom these days is that Republicans, backed by Machiavellian geniuses like Frank Luntz (an occasional Colbert Report collaborator) and Karl Rove, are much better at manipulating language to their benefit. Colbert is almost freakishly verbally dexterous, and his writers are masters at distorting language in a way that’s simultaneously playful and Orwellian. On Thursday, for example, he warned his viewers, “If you’re not currently panicking, that is reason enough to freak out.” He frequently addresses his studio audience as "nation," sounding like a President delivering a State of the Union address.
Colbert likes to push his political performance art well beyond the confines of his nightly show. Earlier this week, after the news broke that Donald Trump would be moderating a Republican debate, Colbert announced “Stephen Colbert’s South Carolina Serious, Classy, Republican Debate,” to be held sometime in January. (Then, in a perfect Trump impersonation, Colbert launched into an anti-Trump tirade, likening him to “a gin-soaked raisin that fell into a nuclear reactor,” among other things). Here’s hoping that a few candidates actually agree to participate, though it seems unlikely.
Then there’s Colbert’s SuperPAC, formed 10 months ago as an elaborate form of commentary on his favorite issue, the Supreme Court’s terrifying Citizens United decision. The latest goal of the Colbert SuperPAC is to get a referendum on the South Carolina primary ballot which will allow voters decide between one of two options: 1) corporations are people or 2) only people are people. In what was, for me, the best segment of the week, he invited South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian (who he nicknamed “Dick Pootz”) to discuss the process. Not surprisingly, it all comes down to money. If the SuperPAC is willing to cough up the cash, the state party will happily put a referendum on the ballot. Colbert doesn’t just grumble about our broken political system, he actually pushes it to its most absurd outer limit, much like he does with his ridiculous persona.
For all his wit and wonkiness, Colbert is also a brilliant physical comedian. Stewart clings to his desk like a life raft, but Colbert moves comfortably around his studio (and beyond: he still does field pieces). In one of this week’s comedic high points, Colbert joined two dancers from the American Ballet Theatre as they performed a selection from The Nutcracker. Clad in translucent black ballet tights and his usual dark blazer, Colbert pranced around the stage, pausing once to point at his crotch. Just minutes before, he’d been quizzing dancer David Hallberg about his recent move to the Bolshoi Ballet. Therein lies Colbert’s appeal: He’s an omnivorous intellectual with an enormous silly streak.
Given Colbert’s “method” approach to satire—he is nothing if not committed to his blowhard persona—you’d think that he’d be a lousy interviewer, but he is not. Stewart vacillates between two extremes, going deadly serious with quote-unquote important guests (usually politicians or authors) while acting flippant and obviously bored around celebrities. Colbert’s guest list is notably more eclectic. This week alone, he welcomed Hallberg, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, rock band the Black Keys, and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The lack of female guests is, for me, a real problem (albeit not one unique to The Colbert Report) but at least the professional diversity is impressive. The show feels more like a nightly salon than just another promotional platform for the usual crop of celebrities; stop by, and you might just learn something new. Even with a dubious character like Abramoff, Colbert is unfailingly polite, and you never get the sense that he is out for blood. (On the contrary, when Stewart’s interviewing someone like Condoleezza Rice or Bill O’Reilly, you can feel him angling for his Frost/Nixon moment.)
The guests who make the best impression are those who embrace the improvisational spirit without trying to upstage Colbert. Even though he’s constantly in character, Colbert’s interviews are substantive: He asks smart, productive questions and has an appealing curiosity about a wide variety of subjects. He gets the jokes in, but not at the expense of the interview, and he never just phones it in. Indeed, he actually appears interested in all of his guests. On Monday, Colbert asked Jimmie Johnson about what makes race-car driving athletically challenging (something I’ve always wondered about) Or consider his chat with Abramoff, who stopped by the show to promote his new post-prison book, Capitol Punishment (get it?). When asked by Colbert, Abramoff said that he did not steal—or in his case, improperly allocate funds—from the Indian tribes he represented as a lobbyist. “Really? Because that is one of the founding principles of our nation,” Colbert quipped in response. It’s a brilliant, politically charged joke, and one that works whether it’s Colbert or “Colbert” saying it.
Occasionally, though, Colbert can be a bit of a charisma black hole, completely subsuming all the lesser bodies around him, and the fact that he’s constantly in character creates a tough dynamic for guests. The most glaring example of this imbalance was his interview on Tuesday with the Black Keys (like Jimmy Fallon, Colbert has a strong musical focus on his show). Colbert struggled to get the anguished indie-rockers to open up about something—anything—but eventually he had to highjack the interview in order to salvage it. “Do you like being famous?” he asked. “’Cause I love it.” Somehow, Colbert can seem generous even when he's stealing the spotlight.