After the first two episodes of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, I thought Stephen had been pretty well Gullivered by the format of the CBS late-night talk show. He wasn’t as funny as he had been on the densely satirical Colbert Report, and the scale of his achievement on Comedy Central made it difficult for him to fit easily into the role of celebrity chatty buns. Both George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson kept shooting uncomfortable glances at Colbert when he asked what seemed to be straight fanzine questions, as if they were wondering if he was somehow subtly setting them up. Would the brilliant satirist who had bearded George W. Bush in the den of the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006 really let them get by with just talking about their fame? We’d already heard that Hillary Clinton was too smart to take such a risk—she turned down Colbert’s invite to appear on his premiere, electing to do Jimmy Fallon on the night of the September 16 Republican debate instead.
But then, last night, came Colbert’s interview with Joe Biden, and now I’m just not sure. It was one of the most heartfelt and raw interviews ever conducted on late-night—or any time of the day—television. As Biden has done in recent weeks as he ponders whether to run for president, the still-grieving father spoke about his son Beau Biden, who died in May of a brain tumor, and about how Beau had survived the car crash that took the lives of Joe’s first wife and their 1-year-old daughter in 1972. Biden said no one should run for president unless they could give their whole heart, soul, energy and passion. “I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there.”
This time, however, Biden was talking with Colbert, who had lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash at age 10, and together these two practicing Catholics went into a prolonged, deeply personal meditation on the nature of suffering and faith.
It was an interview, if that’s even the word, that no other TV host could have pulled off. Colbert asked questions that in others’ mouths would sound saccharine or forced but here came off as authentically direct. And it ended with Colbert practically begging Biden to run, and to do so because of his suffering—an idea so Catholic in its framing (according to my lapsed Catholic husband) as to be almost heretical on late-night American TV.
“It’s going to be emotional for a lot of people if you don’t run,” Colbert said. “And sir, I just want to say I think your experience and your example of suffering and service is something that would be sorely missed in the race.”
You don’t have to be Flannery O’Connor to pick up hints of resurrection in last night’s Late Show. So many of Colbert’s fans feared that his humor and insight would die along with the right-wing blowhard character he played, that it’s been thrilling just to have him back night after night, even if in a slightly less manic and hilarious form. And Biden’s long tease about the possibility of running, after years of bowing to Hillary Clinton’s domination of the Democratic Party, is itself a kind of resurrection. As Colbert suggested, a leader who has been humbled by suffering—suffering more real than enduring bad poll numbers—might be what the country needs right now.