Since taking over CBS’s The Late Show from David Letterman last year, Stephen Colbert has seen his ratings slip; the sunnier Jimmy Fallon, on NBC’s Tonight Show, has only cemented his lead. Whether CBS ever expected to overtake NBC in the wee hours is up for debate—it’s hard to imagine hiring the cerebral Colbert and expecting ratings to go up seismically—but this can hardly be the outcome the network hoped for, as evidenced by their attempt to shore up ratings by scheduling an episode of The Late Show immediately after the Super Bowl (a spot usually reserved for prime-time TV like The Voice or The Blacklist). But as Colbert’s Monday night interview with civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, proved, he deserves a bigger audience because he’s doing something different than anyone else on TV.
One hypothesis about Colbert’s relative ratings weakness has been a perceived partisanship—that because Colbert is widely seen as tougher on conservatives than on liberals, he alienates a potential swath of his audience. The mere fact of Mckesson’s booking would seem to serve that argument; there’s a substantial number of potential viewers for whom the mere fact of the Black Lives Matter movement’s existence is offensive. Booking political candidates on late night has become de rigeur in recent years; leaders of political movements, who can’t default to cute skits or stories about their kids, represent a more meaningful challenge.
However, crucially, Colbert’s line of questioning was not entirely laudatory. This ambivalent tone wasn’t because Colbert wasn’t interested in what Mckesson had to say or because he was necessarily anti-Black Lives Matter, but because he asked the sort of questions many people have about the movement, ones that haven’t been answered by broadcast and cable news. When a questioner at one of this cycle’s Democratic debates asked candidates if “black lives matter or all lives matter,” the lack of context and the shape of the question surely befuddled many; Colbert’s asking Mckesson his reaction to the phrase “all lives matter” allowed for a meaty and insightful breakdown of a movement whose existence is covered far more than its goals. And a line of questioning culminating in Colbert asking Mckesson to acknowledge police officers have dangerous jobs, though hardly hostile, had real charge and tension. It made a contemporary issue vivid not by dumbing it down but by actually working through its complexities.
Colbert was eager both to educate his audience and himself. If the interview is making headlines, it’s for Colbert’s and Mckesson’s trading seats as a visual representation of Colbert checking his own privilege. For me, though, the more memorable moments were ones in which Colbert revealed his own flaws or challenges, as when he admitted he admitted he wasn’t sure he understood white privilege. In the interview’s final moments, Colbert asked Mckesson to give him a fist bump in praise of Colbert’s having been at the March on Washington—in utero. “Baby steps,” Colbert said, with a sad smile.
It’s this self-awareness, and this awareness of what he doesn’t know, that makes Colbert such a good interview on political subjects. This campaign cycle, his main competition on NBC has been booking politicians, but subjecting them to interviews and skits that are pointless in their simplicity. The attitude evinced in, say, Jimmy Fallon’s sketch with guest Donald Trump is that, in contrast to personalities and fun games, politics are complicated and you shouldn’t worry about them so much. Colbert wants to learn.
Which presents a paradox. Colbert’s show is for people who aren’t political junkies—who don’t already know the ins and outs of Mckesson’s activism or, say, Joe Biden’s grieving process—and yet these are the folks less likely to want to watch political talk after midnight. Though CBS is likely planning a blowout Super Bowl special with movie star guests, I’d suggest they consider booking at least one political figure—Ted Cruz? Bernie Sanders?—to show an influx of casual viewers that Colbert’s approach isn’t wonkish, highbrow, or boring. Indeed, it’s the best and most accessible profile work being done on TV.