Dang it, late-night wars! Just when I thought I was out, you go and pull me back in.
Stephen Colbert will be taking over “The Late Show” desk from Dave Letterman, with a five-year contract.
Rush Limbaugh, noted comedy expert, described this on his show as a sign that “CBS has declared war on the heartland of America” and that “no longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatives — now it’s just going to be wide out in the open. What this hire means is a redefinition of what is funny and a redefinition of what is comedy.”
Actually, I think it’s the opposite. By taking Stephen Colbert to broadcast and shutting down “Stephen Colbert” (as the Wall Street Journal reports), CBS has shifted the playing field in the opposite direction. The kind of comedy that pushes the edge and plays against sacred cows and accepted values was “Stephen Colbert” to a T. But he’s just been iced. “Stephen Colbert” of “The Colbert Report” was a vital satirical force. Stephen Colbert will be a lovely late-night host.
It’s a nice professional step, but satire just took a big hit.
We know a great deal about the character Stephen Colbert: pompous right-wing blowhard, lover of eagles and hater of bears, author of “I Am America (And So Can You).”
About Stephen Colbert, we know some things. He is Catholic, he has a lovely singing voice and he lives with his family in New Jersey. He has deft comic timing and is a gifted interviewer.
But I think “Stephen Colbert” was his better half. As the New York Times pointed out in 2012, when he and his Super PAC were rampaging about the country, the interaction of the Real World, in all its sublime ridiculousness, with the satirical world of “Stephen Colbert” had begun to produce something else. Hyde was gaining power. Hyde had his own SuperPAC, with something like 30,000 donors.
The creation was starting to take on a life of its own, roving around and throwing political rallies and attracting live donors. It was endlessly fascinating — constant proof that the world was even more absurd than you thought and that perhaps parody had no limit. “Stephen Colbert” was real and fake at the same time. The show was one of the few places — I can count them on one hand, and one of the fingers is “Borat,” which is questionable — where you could be sure that whatever was happening was satire. Now the Onion has to take up the slack. The clarity of tone was critical and allowed Colbert to push the debate in ways that even Jon Stewart couldn’t.
With Colbert gone, dropping the quotation marks, there will be a hole in the late-night line-up. Jon Stewart remains there to point out how ridiculous the straight news is, but as my colleague Erik Wemple keeps reminding us, he is in some ways just a fantastic media critic. Colbert got to push it further.
During the campaign in 2012, I attended his rally in South Carolina with Herman Cain. There was a marching band. There were 3,500 people in attendance — far more than at any of the other rallies I went to with actual candidates present. He sang. He promised us a Better Future, Tomorrow. He almost got a question asking whether corporations were people or people were people onto the actual ballot. It was a joke, but it also was more than a joke, and the ability to dance on that fine edge made for a cutting commentary.
Tact, Jean Cocteau said, is knowing how far to go too far. “Stephen Colbert” knew exactly where the line was — for the most part. I am going to miss the Brooks Brothers suitpants off of “Stephen Colbert,” who existed in a satirical sweet spot that you can’t just replicate overnight. My colleague Alyssa Rosenberg lists a few aspects of his satirical persona that she hopes he carries over to the new gig. They’re a good start, but I wish he could take more than that. We need him.
I wish him all the best professionally and congratulate him on the move. But he occupied a vital niche, and I hope someone fills it soon. “Stephen Colbert” made the world a better place.