I was wrong. So all due apologies to Stephen Colbert.
I was going to blast away at him here when I saw, online, his “Late Show” interview with Bill Maher on Monday. But then I watched the unexpurgated version and had a far better understanding of what happened to their colloquy.
Colbert, was not, as it first seemed, coming out as the bullying SOB I’ve long suspected he secretly is. Instead, as I watched it unabridged, I realized that in the edited version he was manhandled by time and Maher’s (very funny) insistence on salting the whole dialogue with bleepable obscenities.
Still, I think the time has come to fling a few “get reals” in Colbert’s direction, now that he’s established as CBS’ late night pretender to the throne.
To be blunt: His band is second-rate at best. Its name, “Stay Human,” seems to be an entreaty from one of the higher precincts of self-righteousness where everyone sits around having all the answers and confused, lesser mortals can’t find a chair to join in.
The way every show begins with chants of “Ste-phen! Ste-phen! Ste-phen!” and then his dancing around seems to be a feeble attempt to convince people that what will follow is a night-time version of Ellen DeGeneres’ afternoon party.
Not so. What is, unfortunately, irresistible about what follows on Colbert’s show is that, with total incongruity, he has brought with him to late-night television the hippest and smartest guest list since … well, Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” on ABC in the ’90s.
And before that the greatest network guest list of them all – and the most urbane and literate talk show we will ever see in America – was the show Dick Cavett and producer Christopher Porterfield conjured out of thin air at ABC.
But there’s a problem with having such impressive and articulate guests: Colbert can often be found in mortal terror of letting those guests say what THEY want to say, rather than what might fall into a second-rate idea of late-night entertainment. For instance, Maher punctuated their discussion of American political reaction to terrorism in Paris by saying “now the dinosaurs are outside the theme park.” Colbert responded “I do this for a living and I’m not sure I follow you there.”
Too bad because the audience understood perfectly. They laughed. So did I. It was the kind of very funny, loose comic pop-cultural reference – in this case an allusion to “Jurassic Park” movies – that Robin Williams used to string together five or six at a time at Einsteinian velocity while making every other comic alive look as stodgy as a writer of Hallmark greeting cards.
Colbert pigeon-holed Maher so far to the outer fringe of the Left that he bullyingly ignored how large and grateful a following Maher actually has on his Friday night HBO shows and live concert appearances.
What Colbert is doing, then, is a clumsy mashup of Cavett’s brilliant forays into unabashedly literate and wildly unusual guests and Johnny Carson’s insistence on congealing every challenging thought into middle-American back fence chatter.
Let’s face it: Colbert has proven to be unavoidable.
Jimmy Fallon’s insistence on mounting the night-time relocation of a daytime game show has become close to unwatchable to me however much he, as Leno used to, leads the ratings race.
Jimmy Kimmel has become a solid alternative sometimes by actually asking interesting questions and encouraging an interesting response.
Colbert’s guest list, though, gives him responsibilities others don’t have. It’s painful to hear him sing long, obsequious arias to Jane Fonda about her generational iconhood when Fonda – as articulate and forthright as interview subjects get – only needs the time to express herself fully.
Anyone have any ideas on how to get Colbert to stop leading off his show with his nightly doofus dance? And, most importantly, how to get him to stop bulldozing mainstream mulch over the ideas and peculiarities of articulate people who actually have things to say that we don’t already hear five or six times a day everywhere else?
By all means, send them over. If we can get Stephen Colbert to stop congratulating himself all the time, he may yet become the legend his audience is urged to pretend he is.