A friend recently described The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as being a weird talk show version of Dr. Jekyll and a slightly less evil Mr. Hyde. For half of the show, Stephen covers the news of the day and basically plays his old conservative pundit character from The Colbert Report where pomposity and a firm belief in your own own moral authority is key to the comedy. For the other half of the show, he interviews celebrities, politicians, authors and/or musicians, and sometimes he struggles to completely slip out of Colbert Report mode.
You saw signs of this with his very first guest, Scarlet Johansson, when the show premiered in September. At the start of the interview, she explained that she lives in France now instead of the United States. As if responding out of mere muscle memory, Colbert immediately criticized her, using a comically exaggerated voice to accuse her of thinking she was somehow better than the United States. He might have even used the phrase, “These colors don’t run.”
As Stephen Colbert the character, that’s actually a pretty fun response, perfectly in keeping with his walking parody of Fox News. As Stephen Colbert the person, though, it seemed vaguely mean, or, at the very least, inhospitable. That pattern of Scarlet delivering banal interview banter and Colbert jumping on an obvious Colbert Report joke continued longer than it should have before a visibly flustered Johansson laughed and then demanded, “Stop it!”
Colbert snapped out of it. He apologized and graciously acknowledged that she’s the guest meaning he’s not supposed to be making her feel defensive. The rest of the conversation was pleasant, if stilted and mostly unmemorable.
Looking back on it, I can’t even remember what she was there to promote. However, what I’ll always remember is that Colbert immediately learned that interviewing people on a talk show was going to be much harder now that he didn’t have a character to hide behind, particularly a character whose worldviews so easily guided the conversation, dictated the proper responses and guaranteed easy laughs. You wanted to go on The Colbert Report because Stephen would try to make you look good during the interview, as long as you could play along with him. His character was the clown, and you would look better by comparison. That’s not how it always played out, but that was the general idea.
The transition away from The Colbert Report to The Late Show threatened to change everything, which is why so many TV critics penned “Who is the real Stephen Colbert?” essays in that 9-month gap between the end of the Report and start of The Late Show. Then once the show arrived the surprising part was how little he had changed. If you were someone who only watched The Colbert Report for all of the jokes about the news and routinely skipped the actual interviews, you could do the same thing with The Late Show and not notice a substantial difference.
For example, in last night’s episode he celebrated the recent global climate change treaty by trotting out someone dressed as a giant oil barrel and wishing him goodbye, granting him the nickname “Crudey.” As soon as “Crudey” started to leave, though, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” began playing, and Colbert and his old pal embraced one last time for a melodramatic dance. It was a hilarious bit of late night weirdness, but also an exact replica of a gag Colbert once did on The Colbert Report when New York City banned overly large soda cups.
However, if you enjoyed Colbert’s interviews it’s been a surprisingly tough go of it with him as an interviewer on The Late Show. He’s had his highlights and lowlights, with the clear high point being his heartfelt conversation with Vice President Biden. More recently, he talked to Steve Carell about their time working odd jobs together when they were up-and-comers in Second City. It felt exactly like two old friends having a joyous reunion and sharing stories, like how they once wrote a two-man play together but didn’t realize until several hours before performing that they failed to give Carell any lines. That meant Colbert had to memorize the entire script, which he failed to do and tried to cover up by mumbling through the parts he didn’t know and repeating lines loudly while trying to remember the next line.
Recalling that story, with Carell filling in the gaps and laughing along with him, was adorable, one of the best examples of Stephen being himself in his run on The Late Show to this point. However, this whole “Stephen trying to be himself and not a character” thing is still a work in progress. In his very first show, he left Johansson so befuddled she had to comically ask him to stop attacking her, and in his most recent show he actually called himself out, telling Jennifer Lawrence, “You’ve been here for 45 seconds, and I feel like I’ve done nothing but attack you.”
Of course, Lawrence brings that kind of awkwardness out of the best of them because, much like Katniss in Mockingjay: Part 1, she doesn’t appear to be overly media trained or concerned with sticking to a PR script. This is an interview in which she happily praises her new BFF Amy Schumer for having a tight little ass and a great set of bleep (probably breasts, but CBS didn’t like that). And what is Colbert supposed to do when he tries to compliment Lawrence for actually flying in her family to be with her for the show only for her to bluntly admit the flight was delayed meaning her parents are not, in fact, there. On the opposite end, how the heck is Lawrence supposed to respond when Colbert seriously opens up the interview by congratulating her for being a human being. “Well, I don’t have a choice, really,” she gamely responded.
At various other points in the interview, Colbert accidentally describes her character in Joy as being a guy, which they both laugh off (Lawrence: “I’m so flattered”/Colbert: “You’ve got that kind of range”), and when he asks her for advice for his forthcoming interview with Robert De Niro she plays along before joking, “Can we get back to talking about me?”
Upon first view, I thought this interview had several awkward/cringe-worthy moments, albeit with stretches of fun conversation, ultimately another example of a celebrity who understands that Colbert is still figuring out what his show is going to be. Upon a second viewing, though, I enjoyed how clearly un-scripted it was, with any cringe-worthiness not coming from Colbert himself but instead some of the crappy questions he had on the cards in front of him (which is still partially his fault since he’s also a writer on his show).
Jennifer Lawrence is the real X-factor meaning this is not the best representation of a standard Stephen Colbert interview, but if you watch The Late Show do you find Colbert’s interviews to be occasionally cringe-worthy or endearingly authentic? Is it preferable to the alternatives, especially Jimmy Fallon? Or who really gives a damn about the actual interview part of late night shows anymore? Give me lip singing battles!
I’d also like to point out, in reference to nothing else really, that on last night’s episode of Colbert Doris Kearns Goodwin, noted Abraham Lincoln scholar, was carried to her interview by four half-naked, muscle-bound men with fake Abe Lincoln beards. Colbert’s still got it, and it’s bits like that which keep me watching.