Last week, before Stephen Colbert’s debut as the host of “The Late Show,” I reported on how the Comedy Central veteran planned to re-calibrate his interview style as he moved away from his hyper-confident idiot person and the freedom of cable to a job where he’d be more of himself, but for a network audience. “All I really want from a guest is somebody who has something to say so I can play with them,” he’d told me in August. “I had to put everything through, like, an occipital [central processing unit] up here to live render what my character would think about what the person just said, but still have my intention behind it. Now I can just talk.”
But while there have been high points during Colbert’s first week, including some inspired physical comedy and strong musical performances, when I appeared on “On Point With Tom Ashbrook” to talk about Colbert’s start with Ashbrook and New York Times television critic James Poniewozik, our conversation came back again and again to Colbert’s interviews. And I couldn’t help but feeling that, even including Vice President Joe Biden’s extraordinary candor about his son’s death, Colbert has yet to meet the standard he’d set for himself. But as Colbert finds his footing, his efforts should be a reminder that it’s possible to be entertaining while still being substantive, and to bring a light touch to tough questions.
I appreciate Colbert’s attempts to emphasize niceness and sincerity as he moves away from his aggressive moron persona. Niceness, though, takes as much calibration as meanness, and this challenge has manifested particularly starkly in Colbert’s early interviews.
His night-two introduction of Elon Musk as a real-life Tony Stark may have been apropos, given that Robert Downey Jr.’s Marvel co-star Scarlett Johansson preceded Musk in the line-up. But Colbert’s invocation of a superhero was also cliche and a little credulous; it’s very nice that Musk makes extremely expensive, attractive cars and that he’s pushing forward advances in battery technology.
These things don’t, however, make him a saint, and as Dana Goodyear has pointed out in the New Yorker, Musk is a perfect example of “how deeply we’d prefer to spend our way out of the problem than to change our behavior significantly.” It was a little odd to watch Colbert play a video of one of Musk’s rockets explode on landing, and then gawk, excited at Musk’s assertion that Colbert could be headed into space in two or three years. It was even odder to watch him play it relatively straight when Musk suggested that we could nuke Mars to make it habitable. Watching it, I felt like Colbert had switched places with one of his guests on “The Colbert Report” and was playing the sincere role against a slightly ridiculous interlocutor.
Colbert was a bit more aggressive with Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick, who appeared on the show last Thursday. Even then, though, Colbert used a tactic that sounds aggressive but is actually the equivalent of tipping your pitch: he laid out the worst charges against Uber’s labor practices, setting up ninepins for Kalanick to set down with a neat strike, a canned answer about the cost of renting cabs and the value of flexible work schedules. (None of this is to mention Colbert’s repeated mentions of the Tesla he owns, a bit of trivia that doesn’t do much to enhance his all-American, everyguy appeal.)
And for all Colbert’s interview with Biden has been hailed as an extraordinary television moment, I’m afraid that my takeaway was that much of that was due to Biden’s answers rather than Colbert’s questions. Asking the vice president to tell a story about his recently-deceased son Beau, or how his faith helps him handle adversity are the equivalent of setting up a wiffle ball tee for a major-leaguer. Biden hit a series of grand slams by being far more detailed and personal than politicians normally are, and speaking with more grace than almost anyone in public life manages to muster. Credit’s due to him, not to Colbert.
And Colbert’s new persona also may have set him up to appear less impressive in his discussion with Biden than he intended. Saying in two successive shows that Jeb Bush might be the kind of person he could vote for may be a way for Colbert to reassure the heartland. But it also means that when he urged Biden to run for president, Colbert’s admiration seemed less like sincerity than shtick. If you’re nice to everyone, if you tell everyone (with the possible exception of Donald Trump, who will appear on “The Late Show” on Sept. 22) how terrific they’d be as president, then your enthusiasm ceases to mean anything.
Both on Twitter and in the calls to “On Point,” my dissatisfaction with Colbert’s interviews to date elicited a common, but disappointing, response: you’re asking too much of him, it’s entertainment, not journalism, lower your standards. But it’s not really my standards that I’m judging Colbert by; it’s his own. And by that measure — playing with his interlocutors, improvising based on their answers and letting himself be led by sincere interest — Colbert hasn’t quite found his groove. You don’t have to be an investigative journalist to ask follow-up questions, and being direct or pressing for a follow-up is not necessarily the same thing as being mean. This is an area where Colbert’s new sincerity ought to protect him; it’s harder to brush aside true curiosity than an obvious set-up.
On “The Colbert Report,” Colbert could find ways to use his idiot persona to give audiences something they couldn’t get elsewhere: stupid-seeming questions that sometimes led to extraordinary moments, like his confrontation with Lynn Westmoreland over the Ten Commandments. Colbert could use niceness to do the same thing, showing his guests enough comforting interest that they’re willing to go deeper with him than with other late-night hosts like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel or network-mate James Corden. As he settles in, Colbert has to remember that obsequiousness is another kind of falseness.