Stephen Colbert dropped the “L” word (lie) and the “F” word (you know) on the Trump White House on Monday night. It was the late-night comedian’s latest blast of politically charged commentary — primarily directed at the 45th president. And it was the kind of performance that just a short time ago seemed to risk alienating large numbers of potential viewers but now appears to be making the “Late Show” host a very big draw.
Colbert lampooned White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, who on his tour of the Sunday political talk shows asserted that “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
“Will not be questioned? Let me test that theory,” Colbert said. “What the f--- are you talking about?”
Colbert then challenged Miller, who said he is “prepared to go on any show, anytime, anywhere,” to appear on Tuesday’s “Late Show.”
“Listen, if you don’t show up, I’m going to call you a liar,” Colbert said. “And if you do show up, I’m going to call you a liar to your face.”
Miller did not show.
With forceful remarks like this, Colbert has been gaining on late-night king Jimmy Fallon, who is far less inclined to take on the president in a harsh manner.
Conventional wisdom is that Fallon’s approach works best on a major broadcast network. When the Hollywood Reporter commissioned a survey of late-night viewers in the fall of 2015, shortly after Colbert’s debut on CBS, it found that Fallon appealed to people across the political spectrum. The “Tonight Show” host’s audience was 36 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican and 27 percent independent.
Colbert’s audience skewed sharply to the left: 47 percent Democrat, 17 percent Republican and 31 percent independent.
A liberal slant helped make Colbert a star on Comedy Central, but “CBS executives made it clear that they expected Mr. Colbert to broaden his appeal when he moved to the medium of late night on a network,” the New York Times reported at the time of his hiring.
Colbert, however, was among Trump’s fiercest critics during the campaign and never really moderated his politics. Ratings throughout his first year on the “Late Show” were underwhelming, much to the delight of conservative publications such as the Weekly Standard, which in May called Colbert’s early struggles “sweet schadenfreude.”
Absent another survey of late-night audiences, it is unclear what exactly has reversed Colbert’s fortunes. Are liberal viewers tuning in in greater numbers? Or is Colbert bringing in conservatives who were uncomfortable with Trump during the campaign and who feel unnerved by his fledgling administration?
It is worth noting that Colbert’s skewering of Miller on Monday night had little to do with liberal or conservative policy ideas; it was about a claim to unchecked power, which could alarm anybody.
We’ll see whether Colbert can sustain his recent success. But if he was waiting for ratings to catch up to his vision for the “Late Show,” his patience is being rewarded, for now.