The Late Stephen Colbert

If Colbert’s interviews—meta-interviews, really—tend to be a little edgier, a little more unpredictable, than either Stewart’s or Letterman’s, one can’t help assuming that it’s because they are conducted by The Character, not the everyday husband and father. What will happen when the interviewer is Stephen Colbert, not “Stephen Colbert”? If an E! Online compilation of Colbert-as-Colbert is any guide, he’ll be charming, intelligent, and amusing. But the hint of lethality, if not altogether gone, is likely to be attenuated. The Character hasn’t had to worry about being likeable, any more than Elmer Fudd did. He’s been free to go places that an actual person can’t. The Character’s very one-dimensionality has given his interviews an interestingly three-dimensional quality.


An unfortunate atmosphere of reverence surrounds these legacy late-night TV jobs, as if Carson, Letterman, Paar and the rest were Popes, or even saints. The shows are encrusted with tradition and ritual. Compared to what Stewart and Colbert have wrought on Comedy Central, the offerings on the old three-letter networks, no matter how many Jimmys they’re fronted by, feel tired.

Stewart will now have to soldier on alone. The immediate loss is for liberals, for whom “Stephen Colbert” has played a unique role as a fifth column. The Character has been a miraculous and unparalleled intellectual and political achievement, sustained for a very long time at a very high level. But if the intelligence, discipline, and hard work that Colbert invested in The Character can be brought to bear on revitalizing the variety show, then the polity’s loss may turn out to be the culture’s gain. If Colbert can truly reinvent the genre, if he has the freedom and the inclination to blow it up and build on the rubble, then perhaps The Character will not have died in vain. For the moment, though, excuse me while I put on my black armband.

Hendrik Hertzberg on Stephen Colbert's shift to Late Night to take over for David Letterman. I'm late on this one, but I have to agree with Hertzberg that I'm saddened to lose Colbert the Character.

I understand the financial appeal of the late night circuit, and I'm happy for Colbert getting to cash in on his amazing run but culturally the late night talk shows are a wasteland, more and more irrelevant by the day in this new age of media. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel grasp to produce a bit of cultural residue by coming up with sketches (like this or this) that will play well on YouTube for days after they've aired.

Ironically, in doing so they were chasing in the footsteps of Colbert and Jon Stewart. Now the court jester is trading in his clown shoes for the royal robe. I fear I'll miss the days when he was pointing out the emperor had no clothes.

Well, we'll always have Colbert's hosting set at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, still one of the bravest comedy routines ever.