Stephen Colbert was one of the first celebrities I can remember putting on a pedestal. I remember watching The Colbert Report constantly in middle school, even before I really got the joke. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as its lead-in, provided the straight-faced context that any clueless youngster might need to understand what exactly Colbert would be skewering that night. As a politically-motivated twelve-year-old, I didn’t really grasp the specifics of any of these issues, but Colbert made me want to learn.
In hindsight, I recognize that Colbert may have had an even greater impact on my sense of humor. I recall listening to the recording of his infamous White House Correspondent’s Dinner set and being in awe of his fearless, face-to-face mockery of the most powerful man on the planet. Colbert’s comedy on the Report was the necessary result of President Bush’s administration — a silliness to both reflect and combat the existing silliness of reality. That kind of pointed absurdity is still my favorite kind of humor, but Colbert went a step further by using the context of comedy to show just how absurd the real world was. The most famous example, and maybe the best piece of political satire to come out of his show, was the lengthy saga regarding Colbert’s political action campaign (PAC, later SuperPAC). Night after night, he showed how easy it was for politicians to abuse loopholes to collect an infinite amount of money from anonymous donors, a fact which is based in such legal complexities that only a comedian of his caliber could properly explain it to people. In other words, Colbert appeared on the scene exactly when we needed him.
So as excited as I was to hear about him taking over for David Letterman on CBS’s The Late Show, I couldn’t help but feel skeptical. The Colbert Report thrived mainly in two circumstances: When it got extremely silly and when it used that silliness to be usefully expository. A late-night talk show host on network television ostensibly has to appeal to a broad audience, and losing the conservative pundit character he’d been playing on the Report likely meant losing that particular flavor of political perspective. John Oliver has since picked up his slack in his show Last Week Tonight, but he’s a student of Jon Stewart, so that show lacks Colbert’s aforementioned absurdism. I knew that The Colbert Report couldn’t go on forever, but the last thing I wanted was for Colbert to spend the rest of his career comedically neutered and shackled to a decrepit format.
His first week hosting The Late Show hasn’t been totally successful in assuaging my fears in that regard, but the Colbert I know and love has shone through in some spectacular ways. For one thing, he seems to be interested in dismantling the familiar late-night talk show tropes in favor of a fresh approach. He has no announcer sidekick, instead choosing to fill that role on his own. His interviews so far have been significantly deeper than the traditional softball PR questions lobbed by his contemporaries each night; his interview with Vice President Joe Biden in particular was unafraid of sincere emotion while respecting the boundaries of an interview setting. The second episode opened with Colbert telling the story of how the premiere almost didn’t air due to technical mishaps in place of a standard monologue. He’s challenging the format, and one can only hope that the future will see him continue to experiment in this way.
There’s certainly room for that experimentation, after all. Colbert’s Late Show is still a late-night talk show in the broadest of terms, and most of the jokes lack The Colbert Report’s almost surreal approach to cultural commentary. But every so often, a joke gets through the cracks that only Colbert would go for. The premiere episode had an extended gag regarding a cursed amulet which Colbert had used to secure the hosting gig by making a pact with an ancient demonic entity. Colbert explained all of this with the same tone that Jimmy Kimmel might use to describe a news story prior to launching into a punchline. At this point, the amulet began moaning loudly, which Colbert further explained was its way of commanding him to plug the show’s sponsor, Sabra Hummus. It’s something you’d be more likely to see on Comedy Bang! Bang! than on CBS, but Colbert was committed to it and it was the funniest joke in the entire episode. As the show grows and evolves, I hope that this is the approach that Colbert chooses to take. He’s already proven that The Late Show has room for him to stretch out and do things differently. All he has to do is follow through, and if there’s one thing I know about Stephen Colbert, it’s that he has no trouble following through.