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Thoughts on Stephen Colbert and the future of late-night

Ever since it was announced that Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report,” would be replacing David Letterman as host of the “Late Show,” countless late-night viewers found themselves asking, “Who is the real Stephen Colbert?” Who was the man behind the fictional blowhard host of the satirical late-night show?

Even now, eight months since the show’s premiere with Colbert at the helm, it seems that audiences still haven’t quite figured it out. Every day, I see articles with such headlines as “What does Stephen Colbert’s ‘Late Show’ want to be?” and “Letting Stephen Colbert be Stephen Colbert (whoever that is)” and “Can Stephen Colbert get his ‘Late Night’ groove back?” and on and on.

Has it really been that hard for Colbert to forge his own identity and prove it to the public?

I, personally, have really enjoyed getting to know the “real” Colbert — or at least, whatever glimpse at that person we’ve been able to glean from his time on CBS thus far. Though his takes on politics and current events are slightly less biting and sarcastic than that of his alter ego, I feel that Colbert often continues to provide an intelligent and humorous take on the news that is unparalleled by anyone else in late night.

In a recent article in GQ, Rohan Nadkarni wrote:

“The current Colbert almost exists in some sort of uncanny valley—not as consistently exasperated as his old character would have been, yet not quite overwhelmingly gracious enough to make you feel like he’s fully abandoned his old persona.”

I think Colbert does, indeed, tease his viewers with — in the words of Nadkarni — “glimpses of his brilliance.” I get the sense that we haven’t yet seen everything Colbert has to offer. Perhaps he is being stifled by the regimented structure of the long-established late-night platform? Or maybe he’s simply still finding his footing on network TV?

Nonetheless, I think that if anyone can break apart from the status quo of late-night television, it’s the man who rejuvenated the genre when he caricatured a right-wing pundit on Comedy Central for nine years. I think Colbert — the ‘real’ Colbert — should continue striving to incite meaningful dialogue with his guests about important topical issues. So much of late night (and television in general) is filled with clickbait-y gags and publicity-driven content, and I think hosts like Colbert are capable of much more than that.

“Yes, maybe it’s strange, in a bigger-picture sense, that we now task our late-night talk show hosts with holding important people accountable.” – Nadkarni

The quote above has been true of our expectations of late-night hosts since Jon Stewart hosted “The Daily Show.” It is no longer unusual to expect late-night comedians to provide a check on both public figures and the media. In fact, nearly all of Colbert’s most popular clips on YouTube are in some way political — it’s what he’s known for, and what he does best.

There will always be room in late-night for gags and absurd humor, but we must acknowledge that the genre has well proven to be capable of much more than that. And we should encourage hosts like Colbert to play to their strengths, rather than trying to fit them into a mold of vanilla talking heads.

I see late-night television, or at least some subset of the genre, continuing to follow the route paved by Stewart and his descendants (Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, et al.), which provides a more critical analysis of topical issues, rather than taking a jab at them in a 15-second monologue joke. These comedians often discuss real issues in depth, and sometimes even have a role in encouraging the public to care about things they might not otherwise pay attention to.

I’m not sure what Colbert’s ultimate ambitions are with the “Late Show,” or what his producers and his network expect of him. I can only hope that he continues to provide his audience with the meaningful and insightful humor that we have grown to expect from and love about him.

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