On November 11, 2015

The real Stephen Colbert

Remember when Stephen Colbert was really funny on Comedy Central for nine years while pretending to be an egotistical ignorant right-wing pundit, and then he announced that he was moving to CBS to take over the Letterman show but wouldn’t be taking his eponymous character along with him, and for a few months we all wondered how Stephen Colbert’s new “Late Show” would manage nevertheless to be different—edgier, cleverer, more important—than the other late-night shows, even without the central gimmick that animated “The Colbert Report”?

“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” has aired for two months now, and by now it seems safe to say that it’s not significantly different from the other standard network talk shows—if anything, it’s more standard than they are. That is to say, insofar as Colbert on CBS differs at all from NBC’s Fallon or ABC’s Kimmel, he does so not through innovation but through greater traditionalism: his show seems less geared toward meme-worthy skits and games. Like the talk shows of yesteryear, it contains a fair amount of actual conversation, featuring not only the usual movie stars but also the sort of old-fashioned, respectable guests (impersonally selected bestselling novelists, industry leaders, politicians) that lately have been replaced by viral Internet celebrities on our televisions.

“How refreshing!” Well, not really. The interviews are, I guess, the best aspect of the show, and Colbert remains a strong interlocutor: quick-witted, challenging, engaged. Even so, his atavistic approach to late-night suggests not a rediscovery of the medium’s communicative possibilities but a reminder of its limitations: how much ground can you really cover with a guest in five minutes, no matter how interesting your questions? Today, those who have an appetite for celebrity colloquy get their fix via podcast, with the in-depth hour-long gabfests of Marc Maron.

Colbert occasionally gets a star who might never appear on an Internet show, but in our current media landscape, the utility of his old-timey interview format feels pretty minimal. So what’s left? His comedy, which is genuinely not good: his standing monologues are rife with dad-level jokes, harmless, predictable, occasionally punny. He’s a little better at his desk, performing graphic-aided mini-essays on politics and current events, but these largely feel like toothless “Colbert Report” segments.

Since Colbert started on “The Late Show,” people have been talking about it a lot less than they were before he began, maybe because Colbert is such a treasured piece of the liberal TV comedy arsenal—among the humorous voices that Democrats look to for wisdom, skepticism, and catharsis, he’s probably just below Jon Stewart, above Amy Schumer, even with Louis C.K.—that no one really wants to admit yet that, as himself, Colbert, who is very smart and talented, just isn’t funny in any significant way. It’s surprising and genuinely a little bit sad.

But maybe it makes sense in a way. “The Colbert Report” was great not because it dismantled programs like “The O’Reilly Factor” and “The Rush Limbaugh Show”—by 2005, Al Franken and Jon Stewart had so thoroughly exposed the ridiculousness of right-wing media that Fox News had already become old news in political comedy—but because it dismantled them and then reassembled them in a way that highlighted, in a way accessible to liberal viewers, the basic human pleasures that attract Republican audiences to the hateful, absurd commentary to which they flock: in particular, the sheer joy of ignorance for those shielded from its consequences.

Colbert recognized that even the more enlightened Americans had some hidden Americanness within them—that, on some deep, dark level, many of us want to trust the old verities of the white middle class: that the United States is always right, that our wealth and power were not given to us arbitrarily, that other people are less important than we are, that an excess of learning is suspect, that change is inherently bad, that certain truths exist beyond the realm of facts and figures. Colbert did not simply attack these notions; he dramatized them in a way that revealed their groundlessness while allowing us, at the same time, to revel in their resonant appeal. His character’s self-confidence was both risible and infectious.

Like any great work of satire, “The Colbert Report” was an act of both mockery and empathy—ironic in the best, most complicated sense. The politics of the show were liberal, but Colbert couldn’t have performed so effectively as a parodist without a foot in both camps. He was, in truth, never as left-wing as his supporters wanted him to be; he is by all accounts politically moderate as well as religious. He has a wife and three children, with whom he lives in Montclair, New Jersey. Doesn’t he sound kind of boring? Well, it turns out he is.

I believe that artists occasionally get lucky enough to find their way into characters whose minds or personalities are more compelling than their own. The critic Harold Bloom has said that the character Hamlet is, paradoxically, a greater genius than Shakespeare himself—this is the sort of thing I’m talking about. J.D. Salinger is another example: for all the loveliness of Salinger’s short fiction, the voice of Holden Caulfield strikes me as far more permanent, beautiful, and necessary than Salinger’s own.

The “Stephen Colbert” of Comedy Central was one of TV’s great characters; the real Stephen Colbert strikes me as a nice, middle-aged man—which is fine. As it turns out, the man is a comedic performer, not a comedian. We all understand why he eventually got sick of playing a conservative blowhard; I only wonder why he felt the only alternative was playing himself.

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