Stephen Colbert and the Challenge of Reinvention in Front of a Live Studio Audience

How the transition away from a beloved TV persona can both help, and hurt, the new Late Show host.

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After it was announced that comedian Stephen Colbert would be replacing David Letterman as host of CBS’ The Late Show, one question seemed to dominate the minds of media critics and casual viewers alike: How would Colbert, known for his spoof of bloviating right wing punditry on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, make the transition from carefully constructed talk show character to real-world talk show host? Trivial as it may seem, there’s a subtle, but significant, distinction between the two, predicated on using satire to mock a media genre on one hand, and assuming the position of an all-purpose master of ceremonies—one who must be both genuine, and congenial enough to appeal to an audience beyond fans of pointed political comedy—on the other.

Of course there are many who will likely look at the dynamic between then-Colbert and now-Colbert, and respond with a resounding “so what?” That’s fair—If you’re entertained, you’re entertained. But given the immense power placed in the hands of these television hosts we invite into our homes on a regular basis, it’s worth examining who they are, and how they wield the demiurgic power granted to them by networks and audiences alike.

Last night, after months of waiting, we finally got our first full look at Stephen Colbert, out of character, and behind the Late Show desk. With premiere guests Jeb Bush and George Clooney, Colbert’s Late Show debut was a well-oiled and wholly enjoyable production. But, for those wondering what the “real” Colbert is like, last night’s show presented something of a mixed bag. In fact, watching The Late Show, it’s striking how similar *this* Colbert felt to his Report persona. From on-screen graphical punch lines to the unshakable undercurrent of smarm in Colbert’s voice, there were segments from last night’s Late Show which would have felt right at home on Comedy Central.

None of this, it should be said, is a bad thing. As late night television goes, Colbert’s show already feels sharper than the celebrity-fueled insta-nostalgia that’s come to define Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. However, last night’s debut does serve to highlight the difficulties Colbert faces when it comes to re-framing himself as, well, himself.

Getting out from under the shadow of a career-defining role is difficult under any circumstances (ask William Shatner) but to do so on a nightly basis, in front of a live studio audience, presents a unique challenge altogether. It is, in a way, understandable that Colbert would fall back on familiar patterns as he eases his way into this new career phase. After all, having spent the better part of a decade assuming the guise of his fictitious character the moment the Report studio lights went up, it’s easy to see how the muscle memory of that character might be hard to resist, despite his standing in an entirely new studio, under very different lights.

It’s not that late night talk show hosts have been, nor must be, heart-on-their-sleeve paragons of genuine-ness. In fact, it’s safe to say that all of the talk show hosts America has invited into their homes night after night, from Carson to Conan, have in some way, been playing a character. David Letterman, for example, was infamous for being a profoundly private, and introspective person off-camera. But while all television personalities may, in some way, be playing a role, the danger for Colbert is that he has already made his name as one. And so, similarities between his Report persona and what he ends up doing with The Late Show run the risk of being seen as simply transposing one show onto the other, rather than fully embracing this new project. In some ways, this is a similar dynamic faced by Late Night’s Seth Meyers following his run as “anchor” on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update (albeit with significantly lower stakes and general interest).

It’s also possible that the gulf between “Stephen Colbert: Report Character” and “Stephen Colbert: Person” (or at least, “Late Show Host”) is not quite as wide as previously assumed. Setting aide obvious things like mannerisms, cadence, and affectation, perhaps Report Colbert and Late Show Colbert feel similar because, in the end, they are. After all, no matter how convincing a character may be, it is ultimately an extension of the person occupying the role. With that in mind, perhaps the hopes that Colbert’s Late Show hosting would be markedly different in tone and tenor from his time at The Report were, ultimately, over-ambitious. (The New York Times’ James Poniewozik points to the studio audience’s Report-esque screams of “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” as proof positive that Colbert’s Comedy Central persona was never far from the minds of those in attendance at his first taping)

Still, as we slide (or, rather, are dragged kicking and screaming) into an election year filled with Trump-isms and email scandals, the possiblility that Late Show Colbert has not fully turned his back on the persona which made him a household name becomes all the more significant. If there is, in fact, a lasting remnant of The Report’s satirical political sensibilities sparking somewhere inside this new, out-of-character Stephen Colbert, it may be the thing that both differentiates him in in increasingly crowded televised field, as well as helps us, the viewers, make it through what promises to be a slug-fest of an political cycle with our wits, and humor, intact.

Only time, and ratings, will tell.


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