Last week, fans of Stephen Colbert and late night TV as a whole were hit with a minor shocker – Colbert and his Late Show staff are already working on re-tooling the show. Considering he’s only been the host for eight months, this is a bit unexpected, and can’t help but come across as a bit of a panic move. Still, for those of us who’ve been watching the show, this isn’t that much of a surprise. Colbert and his writers seem to have realized something that has been clear from the beginning: this show has no idea what it wants to be.
The problem with The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is not that it’s a bad show. Really, it has a lot of things going for it: Colbert is as likable and charming as ever, and segments like Big Furry Hat, Wheel Of News, and most of all The Hungry For Power Games are consistently enjoyable. So, what’s the problem? Well, while the show succeeds at being entertaining, it doesn’t have all that much of a purpose. It seems to exist for the sake of existing. It’s as though we could all agree that Stephen Colbert deserves to be on television, and having him take over Letterman’s time slot seemed like a pretty cool idea, so here he is at 11:35 five nights a week, except Colbert and his writers are still struggling with the question of what he’s supposed to do.
Comparing this show to the Colbert Report almost seems unfair – for nine years, that was one of the most in-depth, spot-on pieces of political satire around. Colbert’s subsequent program had a ton of pressure to live up to, and pillorying it because it can’t quite reach that level feels like the byproduct of unrealistic expectations. At the same time, when looking at the two programs, it’s not hard to notice that a lot of what made the Report so great seems to be absent from The Late Show.
For one thing, there’s lack of weight behind what Colbert has to say. While Colbert’s right-wing persona was finely-tuned to the last detail, the alleged real Colbert seems a bit shy about telling us what he actually thinks. He makes jokes about every candidate, but there’s not a clear direction for it to go in. This is perfectly fine if all you’re asking for out of a late night host is some clever one-liners about Those Clowns In Congress, but without any conviction behind his humor, it’s harder and harder to differentiate him from strictly apolitical hosts like Jimmy Fallon or James Corden.
Perhaps the starkest contrast between the two shows lies in the interview segments. In the first two weeks of The Late Show, Colbert interviewed three Republican presidential candidates: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump (the Bush interview came in his first episode). There was massive buzz going into all three of them – how would Colbert, now free of his conservative persona, and able to tell us what he really thinks, tear into these people? The answer, unfortunately, was “not all that much.” In the Jeb interview, he seemed content to play on the notion that he was a Respectable Conservative, and avoided saying anything substantial about his actual views on the issues. All that seemed to matter was that he wasn’t an utter lunatic like Trump. This was disappointing enough, but then, he failed to really go in on Trump. Perhaps it was because he assumed Trump’s ridiculousness would speak for itself. Still, when Fallon’s Trump interview – which at least gave us Trump’s immortal line about not having anything to apologize for – is more biting than your own, that’s a bit of a problem.
The only one of those interviews that gave us any real meat was the Cruz one. When Cruz described his platform with a bunch of agreeable, non-descript platitudes that didn’t say much about what he actually planned on doing, Colbert finished his thought with “…and no gay marriage.” When a stammering Cruz attempted to fall back on his pre-planned lines, the crowd began to boo, only relenting after Colbert politely asked them to stop. At the time, this felt like a preview of what The Late Show would be on a regular basis. Instead, it feels like an outlier, as the show continues to be a reasonably fun way to kill an hour, but not exactly a key source of biting political commentary. When we think of Colbert’s best interviews on the Report, like the time he laid conservative author Laura Ingraham to waste for her racist diatribe The Obama Diaries, one can’t help but see this show as a bit lacking.
One of the most-talked about aspects of Colbert’s CBS gig was the idea that by dropping the conservative persona that had defined him for nine years, we’d get to see the true Colbert. Instead, the opposite has been the case; without the safety of his character, Colbert has pulled punches on both sides, and hasn’t really given us any real insights into what he actually believes. When we consider that Colbert is a devout Catholic, that he once said there was a “nonzero chance” he’d vote Jeb Bush in a presidential election, and that he once stated the he occasionally agreed with his Report character, part of this might be because he’s actually more conservative than we might think, and that he recognizes that by speaking on his more conservative-friendly stances, he could alienate the left-leaning millennial audience that has embraced him since his time on The Daily Show. But speaking as part of that liberal millennial audience, it would be more interesting to watch Colbert present me with an opinion that I disagree with than continue to hedge his bets every night.
In spite of The Late Show’s flaws, it is obviously salvageable. The show still has an immensely charming host, and a few segments that are definite keepers. It just needs to to decide what it wants to be, and what it wants to say. There’s quite a bit of hope that the show can improve and become something great. For quite some time, Late Night with Seth Meyers was even more directionless than this show, but with his A Closer Look segments – in which he is not afraid to tell us what he actually thinks – Seth has established himself as a key part of the late-night world. By adding more bite to his political humor, and by figuring out exactly what he wants his Late Show to be, Colbert can recover from some disappointing early returns and remind why we love him so much.