Why Stephen Colbert Is Special (Hint: That Biden Interview)

There was something special about Stephen Colbert’s first week in the traditional network late-night business. The show itself felt a touch messy, especially that first episode, which we later learned almost didn’t make it to air. That was kind-of endearing. But as his first four shows accumulated, a sense, intangible at first, began to sneak in, a sense that this new late-night host was different from all the other recent new late-night hosts.

Jimmy Fallon looked polished and confident from the get-go, and put his stamp on late-night right away: Namely, we learned, he was going going to play a lot of silly games with his guests. This was brilliantly suited for the times, producing almost daily viral videos of celebrities lip syncing, driving around in bumper cars, and the like. Audiences love it because they’re over the canned interviews, and celebrities love it because … they, too, are over the canned interviews. Also these games allow them to look “authentic,” which is super hot right now. Seth Meyers, when he took over the spot following Fallon, looked like he certainly knew how to be a late-night host. I’m not sure he’s brought much new to the gig, which is why it was a shame NBC didn’t give it to a more innovative (and maybe, I don’t know, female and/or minority) performer.

Anyone interested in Colbert wanted to see at least his first night in Letterman’s old time slot on CBS. He would be switching from the blowhard persona he embodied on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report to the actual Stephen Colbert, and none of us were exactly sure who that was. At first it mainly seemed like he was a guy who smiled and sang way more than his retired alter ego. But two moments stood out this week that proved he had something new to offer the late-night scene, rather than being just another straight, white guy who would be competent enough.

The first came, in general, with the bits he does after the first commercial break, which loosely mimic what he did on Colbert: sitting at a desk and opining on the politics of the day. (In this case, this has mainly meant ranting about Donald Trump.) Because he’s ditching the Colbert persona, he comes off closer to Jon Stewart — which is just fine, since we recently lost his sorely needed voice of reason. For me, the Oreo cookie bit he did was the moment I actually thought, “Oh, I’m glad he’s on TV again”:

His first incredible moment, however, came when he interviewed Vice President Joe Biden, both men getting emotional as Biden discussed the stream of tragic family deaths he’s endured. What’s great about this is that only Colbert could do this, and only the real Colbert:

All due respect to Fallon and his lip sync battles, but there’s no way he could pull off such a feat. Welcome to late night, Mr. Colbert. We’ve needed you — the real you — whether we knew it or not.

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6 comments

  1. So far, when this new show is basically like a renewed version of the colbert report I am quite happy. The more traditional late night talk show stuff has been less impressive, and his interviews with Clooney and Johansson were surprisingly awkward. Howefer, that interview with Biden was exactly as you described, and I am so glad to have colbert back.

    1. I agree. I think he’ll get better at the regular interviews. I’m sure it takes some practice to do straight interviews as opposed to doing them in his persona. (As someone who does her share of interviews, I’m always so glad to be a print journalist … interviews ARE awkward! It takes a special skill to make them look good on TV.) Letterman was great at that, but some other hosts (ahem, Leno) were never very good.

  2. I live in New Zealand and so didn’t see that Biden interview life to air. But I have watched both parts on Youtube. It’s a remarkable and hopegiving piece of television. Thanks for the post, Jennifer.

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