There is no question that Stephen Colbert has struggled during his first year since ending “The Colbert Report” and hosting “The Late Show.”
Most late night hosts have trouble finding their footing at first. Perhaps it was most surprising for Colbert given his years of experience in the field. When transitioning from Comedy Central to the institution that David Letteman built on CBS, Colbert decided to replace irony with sincerity, arguably, something more like himself in real life.
Things clearly weren’t working. Over the past few months, tepid ratings led to a behind-the-scenes shuffle. Even worse, rumours circulated that CBS wanted to swap “Late Late Show” host James Corden and Colbert, which the network has since denied. Clearly, the show needed a jolt of energy.
And while Colbert might not be interested in playing that character forever, he understandably must have grown out of it, bringing it back would only make his “Late Show” better.
It felt right to have him back.
After bringing his old friend Jon Stewart back to cover the Republican National Convention, Colbert decided to bring back his old character, whom he has since retired.
To refresh your memory, the Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” was a blowhard conservative commentator based heavily on Bill O’Reilly. His convincing performance led him to roast President George W. Bush to his face at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. It’s the stuff of comedy legend.
On Monday night, he returned with his signature eye brow raise and misplaced sense of confidence. He did his classic segment, “The Word.” Maybe it was a rush of nostalgia, but quite simply, it just felt right to have “Stephen Colbert” back in the world.
His character is perfect for a post-Donald Trump world.
The late night field is incredibly crowded right now and with the recent success of Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Seth Meyers, it feels like there are more voices of political satire than we can handle.
Colbert mixes politics with fun bits on “The Late Show,” but his character provides a political outlet that is completely absent right now. This election has been completely absurd, perhaps one of the most absurd in ages. By playing a character, and not himself, Colbert can get away with saying a lot of stuff that he wouldn’t be able to as himself.
Plus, this character invented the word “truthiness,” a form of truth that comes from your gut rather than your brain. Every day, you might feel like Donald Trump is spewing truthiness. While Colbert’s character worked perfectly when George Bush was president, it also might have been ahead of its time.
Colbert can be himself and still play a character.
While parts of “Stephen Colbert” were borrowed from the real Colbert, the two are very different. The real Colbert is known for being a kind and genuine man who is also sincere and intellectual.
Here’s the thing: Colbert can be both real and fake Colbert at once if he wants to. He already did it on “The Colbert Report.”
The real Colbert is a religious man who loves musicals and “The Lord of the Rings.” On “The Colbert Report,” Colbert could pretend to be a clueless and pundit while also challenging James Franco on J.R.R. Tolkien knowledge and sing “We’ll Meet Again” with a wide range of celebrity guests. Colbert is at his best both when he sarcastically plays an idiot, and when he can show off the things he genuinely loves.
Sure, being on network TV is different than being on Comedy Central, given that you have a wider audience to appeal to. But people won’t leave if Colbert is both smart and goofy. That balance is what made him a star in the first place. Colbert still does political stuff, and he still talks about “Star Wars” (one of his best bits on “The Late Show” was watching him guess the plot of “The Force Awakens”), but it doesn’t feel like we are seeing his full potential onscreen anymore. Doing goofy bits with Jennifer Lawrence feels more like Jimmy Fallon’s game.
The late night field is so big that you can only benefit from doing something a little different. The best late night shows, such as “The Colbert Report,” are at their best when they feel less like a network product and more like the host’s personal sandbox.
The show needed to try something new to stay relevant. Everyone, including Colbert himself, understands that. There is nothing wrong with bringing back something old to make your show feel new again.
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