Stephen Colbert resurfaced this week, giving us the definitive rendition of “Camptown Races” in the process. The departure of Colbert’s Colbeard in his debut “Late Show” video marked the first of many promotional clips blazoning his ascension as one of the greatest network talk show hosts in history. A bold declaration? Perhaps. I stand by it, though.
When word broke last year that Colbert would succeed David Letterman as the host of “The Late Show,” I was beyond ecstatic. “The Colbert Report” was revolutionary in its day, but it was time to shed what had slowly become a wan premise and reach the apogee of his comedic greatness. Right?
Much to my surprise, there were many naysayers. A few were simply angry that “The Colbert Report” would have to end. Some attributed his greatness to the character he created on the show, “Stephen Colbert” (whenever his name appears in quotes from here on out, it refers to the character he portrayed). Others thought the key was his risibly staunch commitment to said character. Interestingly, each strand of pessimism had a unifying thread: The banality of the network talk show format would impede his brilliance at best and destroy it at worst.
To that I say, “Pshaw!” Here are five reasons why Colbert’s version of “The Late Show” will catapult him to the heights of Carson and make you forget all about “The Report.”
1. He’s smarter than almost anybody in comedy
There are few mainstream comedians sharper than Colbert. Offhand, Steve Martin and Conan O’Brien are the only names that come to mind. Last year, Norm MacDonald reminisced about Colbert’s “Saturday Night Live” audition, saying, “The material was almost scholarly. I don't want to say it was beyond Conan, but it was beyond any educated person. It was more almost like he was just an original thinker. I remember being shocked that he didn't get the job.”
The best comedians combine three things in a seemingly effortless manner: wit, timing and intelligence. Wit and intelligence are closely related, but they’re not always inextricably linked. A funnyman can get by with the first two items on the list, but adding a keen intellect dramatically intensifies everything. It’s like comedy MSG, and Colbert has it in droves.
Like Martin, Colbert studied philosophy in college (before transferring to Northwestern, ooh la la). His appreciation for the subject can be seen in the way he thoughtfully deconstructs ideas and then meticulously reconstructs them. That was the true genius of “The Colbert Report.” He doesn’t have to maintain a single character for a decade to showcase this.
2. He not only embraces the absurd, but optimistically embodies it
The root of comedy is the subversion of expectations. The laughs come from the absurdity present in trying to reconcile what was expected with what was presented. For some comedians, the absurdity is doled out a spoonful at a time. For Colbert, it’s measured in dump trucks. This is one of the biggest lessons to be learned from his 1,447-episode stint as “Stephen Colbert,” oafish conservative pundit.
On the show, “Colbert” saw the world around him with a certain amount of glee and wonder. It was a ridiculous approach to a character with an already ridiculous worldview and sense of self. If “Stephen Colbert” were portrayed with a snide demeanor (i.e., as an actual conservative talking head), he would’ve worn thin almost immediately. The choice to play him as a 6-year-old boy on his first trip to the toy store gave “The Colbert Report” longevity.
It also did something else — which was the secret to the character’s success. It made him human. Humanizing a megalomaniacal narcissist is about as absurd as it gets. Colbert did it with aplomb. And while doing it, he not-so-subtly reminded us that even our ridiculous political enemies are human.
Melding optimism, satire and absurdity takes a special touch and a special disposition, which leads to the next point.
3. He eschews detached irony and detached sentimentality in favor of engagement
Some see Jimmy Fallon’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and frequent fascination with nostalgia as a welcome antidote to the generation of ironic detachment wrought by Letterman. They’re really two sides of the same coin, though. Both are about fighting engagement with the world at large, because engagement means you’ve got skin in the game. That requires vulnerability, and vulnerability can be terrifying. Some choose to sublimate that fear by being overly critical and too cool for school, others by not being critical enough and thinking everything is just plain cool.
Don’t get me wrong, unbridled enthusiasm isn’t a bad thing. Just watch Colbert light up when he out-Tolkiens James Franco time and time again. It’s as magical as Manwë’s dominion over the skies. Unbridled acceptance, on the other hand, becomes wearisome. If everything is awesome, then nothing inspires awe.
If all you want is to manufacture virality in the disengaged, Tumblrized, TGIF-loving, nostalgia-devouring world in which we live, then it’s an admirable schema. However, if the hope is to inspire, move or genuinely connect with people — things transcendent comedy can accomplish — you need to do more than remember the ‘90s. Basking in the otherness of a cynical remove won’t help, either.
There’s a reason Colbert had a desire to humanize “Stephen Colbert.” More important, there’s a reason he allowed the real Stephen Colbert to rip through the character’s seams. It’s because he actually cares. He’s not afraid to be vulnerable. He wants you to be, too.
4. His intuitiveness gives him a leg up as an interviewer
Thanks to his intelligence and willingness to engage, Colbert is an incredibly intuitive interviewer. Conducting passable Q&A's in a vacuum is tough enough. Doing so while playing a combative character is an order of magnitude harder. On “The Report,” his interviews were oftentimes well beyond passable.
Dick Cavett was such a unique late-night host because it felt like you learned something substantive about his guests. Sometimes through serious discussion, sometimes through jovial banter. No matter what, it was a real conversation every time. There was a connection. Nothing felt manufactured. That is sorely lacking in late-night TV these days. Celebrity antics are nice and all, but I don’t care how many famous white people know how to rap the words to someone else’s song. I want to see something real.
Without the constraints of an over-the-top character, Colbert has the opportunity to do what Cavett did. Hell, he did it regularly when he was in character. If Colbert could get a guest to open up while playing an idiot, think about what he could do when he’s being himself — incisive, droll, charming, silly, thoughtful and downright funny.
5. He can inhabit, and transcend, the structure
This is the point Colbert defeatists seem to have missed. They’re putting the cart before the horse. The character he played on “The Colbert Report” wasn’t great in and of itself. “Stephen Colbert” was great because Stephen Colbert was the person inhabiting the character.
What he did while inhabiting the character is what enabled him to transcend the premise of a bumbling right-wing mouthpiece and become a legitimate cultural force. Everything mentioned above is what gave him the ability to pull this off, and it’s what’ll give him the ability to fully inhabit and ultimately transcend the role of Stephen Colbert, host of “The Late Show.”
Or in terms Colbert himself would approve of: On Comedy Central, he was Gandalf the Grey. On CBS, he’ll become Gandalf the White.