For three moments last night, the host of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” abandoned his chair. It was a punchline; in response to inane comments about strategy from the Republican candidates for president, Colbert fled his post, either by ducking under his desk or dashing away from the camera’s sightline. The remaining image was of his nondescript black office chair behind the desk bearing the show’s red-and-blue logo.
He made it back there, but it was a fitting image for “The Late Show,” eight months in. As the New York Times wrote this weekend, the former Comedy Central host’s move to broadcast has come with some speedbumps, as Colbert the satirist has been retired, and Colbert the “real guy” is put on display. CBS recently brought in a new showrunner, Chris Licht, to streamline production behind-the-scenes for the often-grueling task of running a nightly broadcast. Licht took over some of Colbert’s responsibilities as executive producer, which allowed the comedian to focus on hosting.
Which brings him, and us, back to that chair, and Colbert’s ease with occupying it. In this election cycle, Colbert is caught between the lacerating critique of his ultra-conservative persona and the demands of the late-night talk-show host’s seat of power. And though I trust that Colbert will succeed on “The Late Show”—indeed, he already had, well before Licht came along to make his life easier—there is no longer any doubt, to my mind, that Stephen Colbert, the host of the CBS late night show, can never do the incredible political work that Stephen Colbert, host of “The Colbert Report,” did with stunning, easy skill. He hasn’t transformed entirely—Colbert’s enthusiasm for cracking jokes about his life under “the future Trump presidency” brings a certain sane skepticism to the mainstream. But he is not the liberal warrior he once was.
Take last night’s main interview, which was with that other political talk show persona, Bill O’Reilly. It was somewhat astonishing to realize, a minute or so in, that Colbert and O’Reilly were meeting as diplomats in détente. A few years ago, Colbert would have sneakily dismantled O’Reilly and left him for scraps, by sidling up to him with his buffoonery. Indeed, 18 months ago, he did just that—calling O’Reilly “Papa Bear,” “Baby doll,” and, most memorably, “a fucking egomaniac.”
Colbert is not the type of no-holds-barred host that can eviscerate at close range, though; he needs either the remove of being a different persona (“The Colbert Report”) or being in a different room (Trump). When Colbert interviewed Donald Trump last year, he could barely keep an incredulous grin off of his face. Not exactly straightforward discussion; not nearly the interrogation that Trump so richly deserves. But most importantly, it’s not even close to the level of scrutiny that it appears Colbert himself would like to direct at the GOP presidential frontrunner. Colbert has chosen the role of padded publicity salesman over political sketch-comedian, and in practice, that means walking away from fights he’s perfectly qualified for.
O’Reilly is no exception. I don’t know if I expected fireworks, but I certainly didn’t expect to watch a conversation between two dignitaries who appeared to have more in common with each other than the rest of us. O’Reilly and Colbert are both incredibly well-versed in the news, and despite both hosts’ in-character bluster, they are also both very thoughtful people. Of course, Bill O’Reilly’s thoughtfulness leads him to believe pretty crazy things, but as an interviewee, he’s fascinating; these days, he is as critical of the Republican establishment as most progressives. Colbert and O’Reilly had the air of long-lost classmates. In the second segment of their interview, after the commercial break, the two traded some insider references to what it was like attending a Catholic school. Later, when the two were discussing the former Speaker of the House, John Boehner, Colbert asked: “Has he ever come on your show? … He’s never come on my show, either.” These are not rivals. These are colleagues.
I admit, it is riveting, but in a way that is quite different from “The Colbert Report”’s treatment of O’Reilly. Maybe the 2016 election has made strange bedfellows of us all, but for someone who lived through the trenches of the 2000, 2004, and 2008 elections with Colbert, it is mindboggling to watch O’Reilly so comfortable in Colbert’s guest chair that he nearly takes over the hosting role from Colbert, mugging for the camera and making the formerly booing audience laugh at his jokes. It wasn’t all a bed of roses. When O’Reilly posited that African-American voters were loyal to the Clintons, Colbert turned to his bandleader, Jon Batiste—who is black—and asked gravely, “Is that true?” But those moments of sharpness were points of dissonance in a meeting of minds that both determined, by the end, was “delightful.”
The strangeness of this camaraderie did not escape the comedians’ notice. “You and I are agreeing all over the place,” Colbert joked. O’Reilly—who had previously “you people”-ed Colbert as one of those culture-war-starting progressives—retorted, “You’re actually listening, and that’s a good thing.”
And this points to the silver lining in Colbert’s “Late Show” apparent toothlessness. It’s hard not to be disappointed, as a fan of “The Colbert Report,” who thought his brilliant, snarky analysis of the Republican party was not just hilarious but also a lifeline to sanity in an increasingly terrifying world. But though Colbert isn’t doing the same work, he is doing other work—a cross-party bridge-building, based on faith in conversation and understanding and growth. That’s defined his “Late Show” persona from the start. But in this O’Reilly interview—coupled with a new showrunner and a new focus on ratings—it seems like a Rubicon has been crossed, from the old Colbert to the new. It could be great. But sometimes, in the chaos of this election cycle, open-hearted understanding seems like too great of a goal for just one man.