The Fresh Traditionality of Stephen Colbert

By Joe Longo

Courtesy of Charitybuzz

Courtesy of Charitybuzz

This week, January 25-29, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert will feature former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Senator Rand Paul, and host of CBS News's Face the Nation John Dickerson. For The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Kate Hudson, Sia, and Dan Patrick all will be stopping by. Tune in to CBS for politics and NBC for Hollywood? Is that how it goes? While Colbert will also host thespians Sarah Paulson and Chris Pine this week, Fallon lacks the political guests his counterpart has in doses.

In switching from the character “Stephen Colbert” of The Colbert Report to the human Stephen Colbert host of Late Show, many remained skeptical about this transition. Ultimately, the hype fizzled quickly as Colbert embraced the traditional format of late night television where a (historically white) man sits behind a desk and interviews an ever-rotating guest.

Yet unlike his Comedy Central character’s tendency for the dramatic, the new Stephen Colbert revolutionizes through subtly and intracity.

Take January 14, 2016; DeRay McKesson made his talk show debut on the Late Show. On the surface this sounds uneventful. Countless guests have sat in adjacent chairs to a late night host. But it is important to know who this man is; Mckesson is a leader of the ubiquitous Black Lives Matter movement. Now that’s an accomplish itself for late night. How often do we get political leaders, let alone black political leaders outside of Spike Lee and Reverend Al Sharpton on talk shows? During his eight minute segment, Colbert held an honest discussion with McKesson about police brutality and white privilege. Notably, Colbert challenged McKesson.Through a series of tough questions, McKesson spoke about the problematic nature of saying “All Lives Matter” and what truly “white privilege” is. By having McKesson explain white privilege on his show, Colbert used his said “privilege” (his talk show)  as a platform for others to succeed. This type of frank, serious political conversation on late night network television is an anomaly--yet a highly welcomed one.

Notably, Colbert’s “fresh” traditionality debuted during an an election season. With political discussion is at its most culturally relevant for the next four years, 2016 presidential candidates eagerly appear on late night shows hoping to showcase their “relatable” personalities. While the effectiveness of these public relations polys remains highly debatable, these appearances present a prime example of the varying approaches to political discussion on late night. Donald Trump spoofed himself as host of Saturday Night Live, and Jeb Bush played one of Jimmy Fallon’s notorious games on The Tonight Show.

But then, again, there is Colbert. Having already hosted all major 2016 political candidates within the five months following his September 2015 debut, there is a notable tonal shift. While Hillary Clinton chastised the republican candidates on Jimmy Kimmel Show, thus supplying the wanted doses of celebrity conflict, she remained serious for Colbert. Questioning the influence her relationships with Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama will have on her potential presidency, Clinton distinctly noted that her campaign is her own and not anyone’s third term. Departing from the expected publicity stunt akin to a celebrity promoting their latest movie, Colbert presented a serious yet comfortable discussion of politics.

Yes, Colbert has always been political.  A former correspondent on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, his roots are in satirizing politics. But Colbert is no longer a face for the edgy Comedy Central. Rather, as anchor for CBS’s flagship late night, a new, wider viewership manifests. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, millennials (defined as ages 18 to 34 in 2015) surpassed baby boomers (ages 51 to 69) as the largest living generation in the United States. This on its own does not mean much. Yet millennials too make up the primary demographic for late night cable television. When combined together, Colbert must cater to a young and aging demographics.

In supplying a new zest to the age-old late night talk show format, Colbert seamlessly enhances and informs his widened audience. Often, the general public hesitates to support new political ideologies. Yet in allowing political leaders like McKesson and Clinton on his show, Colbert is using his platform to highlight imperative topics. He is driving a cultural, political zeitgeist through his beloved flare of comedic honesty and transparency. And most importantly, he expects the same from his guests.