Stephen Colbert has the potential to become an arbiter of American politics in his role as the host of The Late Show, and his recent interviews with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump suggest that he will.
It has been one of the strangest, most anticipated transformations in television history as Colbert has transitioned from the ultra-conservative, satirical character he played for years on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to helming the prominent late-night talk show.
The transformation has been fascinating because Colbert’s character was virtually perfect, and the mask never slipped. His satire was so spot on that conservatives actually loved The Colbert Report at first, not knowing that they were being mocked. Colbert’s 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner roast of President George W. Bush suggests that the person who invited Colbert to be the dinner’s entertainment did not fully appreciate Colbert’s razor-sharp satirical genius.
When the announcement was made that he would take over The Late Show after David Letterman’s retirement no one knew exactly what The Late Show would become, or who exactly Stephen Colbert was beneath the mask, but his interviewing style has not been radically different. He is not pretending to be an ideologue anymore, but he is just as wickedly intelligent, clever, and funny.
The biggest change is that he is more protective of the guests he has interviewed, or perhaps more classy. With the new, more general-audience platform Colbert is not trying to, as the Huffington Post might describe it, eviscerate his guests for their beliefs and opinions, though that does not mean that he goes soft on them. He walks the line between journalistic resistance and talk show host politeness: Ted Cruz’s talking points met with friction, but at the same time Colbert asked his audience not to boo his guest. A man of charm, Colbert orchestrated an easygoing interview with Donald Trump while simultaneously exposing him as a clown unwilling to admit Obama’s American citizenship.
I hope Colbert continues interviewing politicians because he is most comfortable and entertaining in the political world. His other interviews with apolitical celebrities have been a little rocky, but in America’s current hyper-partisan climate, we could use Colbert’s intelligence and wit to help us navigate back toward political sanity.