A Tale of Two Colberts
I began watching Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report” around the 2008 election, the first that I vividly remember. (I’m dating myself, but I remember reading The New York Times headlines after George W. Bush won the 2004 election, so I’m not that young). Colbert managed to interest a 13-year-old in politics — a feat no one has probably accomplished since.
I’m no political whiz, but I do appreciate a good joke at the expense of our government.
It’s no secret political engagement is on the decline, especially among young people. “The Colbert Report,” which my dad affectionately refers to as ‘liberal propaganda,’ made politics palatable to the millennial generation.
Colbert’s show made being politically knowledgeable “cool” because the only way to understand the jokes was to understand the substance.
Our government sometimes thinks of itself as the glue to our society, but I think pointing out the idiocies in the system is crucial to maintaining voter interest.
After nine seasons, the end of “The Colbert Report” marked the end of the “Stephen Colbert” character, a parody of a Bill O’Reilly-type TV host. The late night program offered a way for people to keep up with the news without having to keep up with the news by compiling the day’s most newsworthy topics in a half-hour of comedy bits.
Soon after he announced the end of “The Colbert Report,” he signed on to replace David Letterman on “The Late Show.” Rather than carrying the Stephen Colbert character to “The Late Show,” Colbert presented his authentic self in a more traditional talk show setting.
“I used to play a narcissistic, conservative pundit and now I’m just a narcissist,” Colbert cracked during the premiere, in reference to his alter ego.
But the retirement of Colbert’s political pundit character is not synonymous with the retirement of jokes.
“I begin the search for the real Stephen Colbert, I just hope I don’t find him on Ashley Madison,” Colbert quipped in his “Late Show” opening monologue.
In one particularly memorable instance during the premiere, Colbert brought out a pack of Oreos and explained the connection between milk’s favorite cookie and Donald Trump, America’s favorite businessman (and now Republican presidential candidate).
Nabisco, the company that makes the popular sandwich cookies, moved a plant from Chicago to Mexico, prompting Trump to declare he will never again eat an Oreo.
“That’s right, Donald Trump is swearing off Oreos,” Colbert deadpanned. “I’m not surprised that Donald Trump is standing up to ‘big cookie.’”
Colbert’s new show has not diminished his love of joking at the expense of politicians who tend to take themselves a little too seriously.
When Trump made an appearance on “The Late Show,” Colbert teased, “I want to thank you not only for being here but for running for president. I’m not going to say this stuff writes itself, but you certainly do deliver it on time every day.”
But despite Colbert’s penchant for packing in the hard jokes, “The Late Show” has also opened up the stage for authentic interactions.
During the third episode of “The Late Show,” Stephen Colbert interviewed Vice President Joe Biden and discussed the recent loss of his son, Beau, to brain cancer. The exchange demonstrated a stark departure from the usual political chit-chat seen on “The Colbert Report.” The atmosphere was somber, and the only jokes made were to lighten the mood.
As Biden expressed his love and respect for his late son, Colbert sincerely said, “You have suffered, and yet through your suffering you seem to have made some beautiful things in your life.”
At this, Biden almost started crying, which made me almost cry. I had never been brought to tears while watching Colbert — except when I laugh so hard that a few sneak out.
The tone of the interview differed tremendously from anything seen on “The Colbert Report” and indicates the true distinction between the two Colbert’s. One is a comic character and the other is a real life human who has experienced loss similar to Biden’s. The exchange was incredibly compelling and heartfelt — and just as successful as a joke.
Colbert introduced me to political satire and his move to “The Late Show” hasn’t diminished his ability to raise awareness about important topics through humor. But the show does open up an emotional connection to the audience as a result of the addition of softer, less comedic moments. The two shows exist in different categories and for different purposes.
I’ll miss the wacky host of “The Colbert Report,” but I have no doubt that “The Late Show” will continue to inform viewers about the issues of our times.
Colbert entertained and educated me in my formative years — kind of like PBS Kids. I can see the slogan now. “The Late Show:” Where Colbert can be Colbert. Grab a pack (or two) of Oreos and get ready to laugh; it’s about to be an election year.