Colbert’s pungent wit takes social change out of satire
Opinion: new US ‘Late Show’ host has surgical wit but is no radical
Comedian Stephen Colbert, who describes himself as “an omnivore,” who loves everything from ‘A Man for All Seasons’ to ‘Jackass’. Photograph: Reuters/Jim Bourg
I don’t remember much about being on Stephen Colbert’s show. It all passed in a blur of fear. I remember him coming into the make-up room to remind me he was going to be in character as a jerk. I remember he held up my book about gender and asked if it was “soft-core porn”. I remember he asked me if I wanted to hold his Peabody and I told him I did, so he jumped up to grab the TV award from the mantel.
The experience reminded me of a 1937 musical called A Damsel in Distress , where Fred Astaire guided Joan Fontaine, clearly not a dancer, around a lawn, soaring for both of them. Colbert was as quicksilver with his wit as Fred was with his feet. And like Astaire’s more talented partner Ginger Rogers, who had to dance backward and in heels, Colbert was doing two things at once that were very hard. He was dazzling as a satirist and improv comedian while mimicking a buffoonish right-wing broadcaster.
Jon Stewart once described the level of difficulty to me this way: “It’s as though you’re doing your show in Portuguese.” The reason The Colbert Report worked, Stewart said, when I interviewed the two comics for Rolling Stone in 2006, was that Colbert could act like an obnoxious egoist, but his “basic decency can’t be hidden”.
Colbert, who will replace David Letterman as host of the Late Show on CBS next year, is witty and a good interrogator without being twisted, as Johnny Carson was. He’s inventive, like the comic genius he will replace, but not tortured like Letterman. In person, Colbert is a nice guy, but not as monologue-monomaniacal as Jay Leno.
He’s not an ingratiating boy next door, like Jimmy Fallon, or a scorchingly candid curmudgeon, like Letterman. No one, including CBS president, Les Moonves, and the host himself, is sure what his new show will be like because we’ve so rarely seen Colbert when he wasn’t playing a character. And it’s a sad double blow, after all. It’s not only Letterman who’s retiring, but the blowhard doppelganger of Colbert.
Carson was the Walter Lippmann of comedy, wielding enormous influence over the reputations of politicians he mocked. Stewart and Colbert took it a step further. They became Murrow and Cronkite for a generation of young viewers. It was a measure of how seriously Washington viewed Colbert that in 2007, Rahm Emanuel, then the Democratic Caucus chairman, told freshman Democrats to stay off Colbert’s show.
Rush Limbaugh and some other conservatives bristled at news Colbert was moving to the more mainstream network platform; they know he can be brilliantly effective about the absurdity and doublespeak of politics. “CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America,” Limbaugh said.
Colbert said in the Rolling Stone interview that his agenda was humour, not social change, noting: “Peter Cook was once asked if he thought that satire had a political effect. He said, ‘Absolutely, the greatest satire of the 20th century was the Weimar cabaret, and they stopped Hitler in his tracks.’”
Except for supporting JFK, Colbert’s parents were not very political or liberal. Colbert kept a Nixon poster above his office desk. “Nixon was the last liberal president,” he told me. “He supported women’s rights, the environment, ending the draft, youth involvement, and now he’s the boogeyman?”
White House Dinner
After his appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006, where he sliced George W Bush so surgically that the speech, which fell flat in the room, went viral on liberal websites, Colbert looked shaken. “I didn’t want to be subversive,” he told me. “I just wanted to be funny.” He said he was not trying to throw a Molotov cocktail, as a critic charged. He agreed with one of his writers, who told him: “You threw a bottle of grape soda that happened to have a lit rag in the neck, and the room was soaked with gasoline.”
He describes himself as “an omnivore,” who loves everything from A Man for All Seasons to Jackass , from hip-hop to Ovid in the original Latin. He had 10 older siblings. But after his father and the two brothers closest to him in age died in a plane crash when he was 10 and the older kids went off to college, he said, he was “pretty much left to himself, with a lot of books”. He said he loved the “strange, sad poetry” of a song called Holland 1945 by an indie band from Georgia called Neutral Milk Hotel and sent me the lyrics, which included this heartbreaking bit: “But now we must pick up every piece / Of the life we used to love / Just to keep ourselves / At least enough to carry on . . . And here is the room where your brothers were born / Indentions in the sheets / Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore.”