It was a no-brainer that Stephen Colbert as The Late Show host would be less politically edgy or hard hitting than he was on The Colbert Report. After all, The Colbert Report was arguably the most relentlessly, fiercely political, and, dare I say, partisan (in a good way) television show ever. Because Colbert never broke character, nearly every sentence he uttered was a political statement in which he simultaneously mocked right-wing values, or lack thereof, and implicitly advanced his own humanism and progressive political orientation. As Colbert explained in his Late Show debut, “I used to play a narcissistic conservative pundit—now I’m just a narcissist.”
But it’s not just that he’s taken off the character mask. Colbert has gone from cable to a major network. Cable is always less restricting than network television, but on top of that, Comedy Central, a channel dedicated exclusively to, well, comedy, is especially irreverent. Strong political opinions aren’t as tolerated on network television, which is why NBC (the network) has MSNBC (the cable channel) and Fox (the network) has Fox News (the cable channel). (I’m in no way equating MSNBC and Fox News, by the way—Fox News is a lot further from the center and from the facts than its so-called liberal counterpart.)
So, given these limitations, how did Stephen Colbert as political critic fare this past week? As expected, the first week of the show revealed a more politically restrained Colbert, and even some clichéd bipartisan statements and gestures. But given the new context, he managed to keep the show’s politics fairly pointed. And maybe, just maybe, his more bipartisan tone will prove to be a strategic way for him to deliver his more politically daring messages. A girl can dream.
Already, the focus and overall content of Colbert’s Late Show has been far more political than that of other late night network talk shows, including David Letterman’s. Colbert’s guests for the first week included Jeb Bush and Joe Biden, and the guests for the second week include Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. While David Letterman did interview then–Vice President Al Gore during his second week hosting The Late Show in 1993, none of his other early guests were involved in politics. When Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show in 1992, his early guests were Billy Crystal, Emilio Estevez, and Christian Slater. When Jimmy Fallon replaced Leno in 2014, he had Michelle Obama on, and even asked her about the Affordable Care Act, but the rest of the interview steered clear of politics, while Fallon’s other first week guests—Will Smith, Jerry Seinfeld, Bradley Cooper, and Justin Timberlake—all fit the mold left by his predecessor.
But hosting politicians, judges and diplomats doesn’t make the show politically pointed, per se. For that we have to look at the interviews themselves, and the monologues.