No matter what side of the political aisle you occupy, odds are high that Steven Colbert has made you laugh at least once… if not far more times than that. Beloved for his political satire and his commitment to staying in character as a right-wing pundit, the brand of Colbert is responsible for everything from airing hilarious super bowl commercials to pointing out the corruption behind Super PACs. His clever humor and his seemingly effortless ability to transform cerebral social commentary into the silliest of situations is uniquely his own. That combination of wit and star-power is part of why CBS has chosen him to replace one of Late Night’s retiring titans, David Letterman. This is great news for Colbert’s career, but will it be good for the rest of us?
Starting out doing improvisational theater sketches in college, Colbert gained some minor acting and comedy writing jobs, but first gained a major audience as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His distinguished humor eventually earned him his own Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, and has now launched him to the position of David Letterman’s replacement.
Some are elated that Colbert is going to gain an audience larger than he’s ever had before, while others are concerned about what his departure from the Colbert Report will mean for his TV persona. It has already been announced that in order to take the reigns of a much larger show, Colbert will be leaving behind the Comedy Central character that has gained him so much adoration in the past. The blatant spoofs of Fox News figures like Bill O’Reilly, and other ironic bouts of satirical star-spangled awesomeness he is known for, will have to go, at least in part. What many are currently wondering is whether or not this ditching of his old character is also a sign that he will be leaving behind his sharp social commentary as well.
There are some indicators for optimism. Jon Stewart seems to think that Colbert’s social commentary could sharpen if given the opportunity to work outside of the beloved Colbert Report persona. When endorsing Colbert for the position, Stewart said, “He’s done an amazing job with that narrow cast of character, but he’s got a lot more he can show.” Stewart also added, “He’s got gears he hasn’t even shown people yet. He would be remarkable. ”
Odds are that the charisma of Stephen Colbert will be able to carry the day as he takes on his new late night role, but will it have the same cultural weight as his previous job? Like the Daily Show, Colbert’s pointing out the hilarious hypocritical moments of politicians, along with other powerful figures, is a staple of his act. So too have been his war critiques. In addition to his character, these elements of his comedy may be at risk too. It’s still too early to say, but whatever current fans of Steven Colbert hope for, it’s clear that he is an entertainer first, and a social commentator second. At best, he has a solid shot of getting his clever messages out to a larger audience. At worst, he may be forced to lobotomize his act as a means of keeping that audience. As Colbert leaves behind his old character, we hope that the replacement persona is something more multidimensional than before, and not something more generic.
What is most clear about Stephen Colbert is that his past successes have helped shape a cultural landscape where American audiences are ever more politically skeptical, and as a result far more open to ironic perspectives on the forces that govern their world. If Colbert was able to bring brilliant wit to a fake news show on Comedy Central, imagine the long-term potential of his newest gig. There is a lot of risk in what Stephen Colbert is doing, but also a great deal of possibility.