What characterized Stephen Colbert’s Late Show in its early going was its host’s evident curiosity about the world and engagement with his guests. Even as the show struggled to find a consistent voice and to get a foothold in the ratings, Colbert, finally free from his Comedy Central-era faux-persona as a conservative blowhard, seemed boundlessly engaged, from the personal struggles of figures in power to complicated issues of identity and politics.
Colbert’s inherent respect and courtliness had a way of working against him when it came to presidential politics, which he only fitfully was able to get a handle on, apologizing at one point to Donald Trump for jokes about him. He planned a mild, pleasant election-night broadcast that, with the election of Trump, fell into compelling chaos. In retrospect, this helped change Colbert’s fortunes by changing his tone. His show became competitive with fun, sunny Jimmy Fallon by adopting the NBC host’s circus-ringleader attitude to entertainment and then putting a grimy filter on it. Colbert’s show was going to rise or fall not on the guests (indeed, some episodes have mixed new monologues with rerun guest interviews) but on him—a person who, after a long search for a persona, had stumbled upon angry and loud.
Which brings us to Colbert’s recent, controversial monologue in which he directed a homophobic slur at the President, suggesting sarcastically that he engages in penetrative sex acts with Vladimir Putin. What’s most striking about the monologue, which aired Monday night, is how remarkably unmotivated it feels. Notionally angry at Trump for having treated CBS’s Face the Nation host John Dickerson unfairly, Colbert builds up a head of steam in an instant. It’s just as ginned-up as Fallon’s enthusiasm for the lip-syncing abilities of every one of his guests. “You’re not the POTUS, you’re the Bloatus!” Colbert intones, the umbrage in his voice rising. “You’re the glutton with the button. You’re a regular Gorge Washington!”
It’s not hard to see why Colbert ended up defaulting to a joke that presumes the worst thing you can call a man is gay—the rest of his material wouldn’t get him booked as a guest on The Late Show. The show, like all late-night shows, is structured to privilege Colbert’s sensibility and his wit abone all. But Colbert has little to say beyond broad, bland puns about Trump’s physique, intelligence, and relative popularity. There’s no guiding point-of-view here as to what makes Trump so uniquely nettlesome as to make the outrage routine even plausible. Colbert seems simply to be working off a list of lowest-common-denominator critiques of Trump that anyone could understand, and at least a few could be provoked by. That a fairly conventional sort of antigay humor comes as the culmination of a routine so allergic to ideas is no surprise.
Finding a way to speak to a wide audience in language that’s decipherable to all—in short, broadcasting—was always Colbert’s task on CBS, and one he had greater-than-anticipated difficulty achieving. But those hosts who’ve been met with real artistic success in the Trump era—Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee—have been able and willing to introduce fact and argument, to go beyond the argot of pure inarticulate anger that Trump himself has brought into the mainstream. Colbert’s format demands a straight-up monologue into which he can’t really introduce PowerPoint slides. But he’s so assiduously stripped away everything beyond today’s scandal and his rhyming dictionary that he’s created a show worth blogging about but not worth watching.
The worst part is that one suspects Colbert knows the difference. In his election-night broadcast, as a show that appeared planned around the predicted, uneventful march toward a Clinton victory, Colbert delivered a startling and seemingly extemporaneous monologue about the things that unite Americans. That impulse, the same one that led him to apologize to Trump in 2015, has been for unity even when it doesn’t quite fit. And in the months since that special, and since that election night, Colbert has won by learning that nothing unites like rage, expressed poorly but with passion.
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