I didn’t know what to expect when I heard Stephen Colbert would be leaving his Comedy Central show to become the new host of The Late Show on CBS.
My first thought was, how can he pull this off? He had built a career by brilliantly sending up close-minded, ignorant neo-cons through a finely crafted satire of Bill O’Reilly. Surely that character would not play on a mainstream vehicle like The Late Show. Still, I was willing to give the guy who mocked George W. Bush to his face (at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner) a chance.
So now that we have had a glimmer of the new Stephen Colbert what does it look like CBS is going to allow?
In 2014 I published a book on Spike Lee called The Spike Lee Enigma: Challenge and Incorporation in Media Culture. In this book I argued that as Lee became increasingly embraced by mainstream Hollywood the rough political edges of his work were inevitably honed down. It was a long way from She’s Gotta Have It (1986) to the 2013 action-flick Old Boy.
Now it seems like we are faced with The Stephen Colbert Enigma, as another artist who came into his own challenging mainstream culture has now been thoroughly incorporated into it.
Instead of caustically mocking George W., we now have Colbert gently teasing the climate change agnostic (!) Jeb Bush about the exclamation point in his Jeb! campaign signs and telling him he could even vote for him.
The New Colbert turns a potentially sharp critique of Donald Trump into an extended product placement for Oreos. (This, shortly after an extended product placement for a national brand of hummus.)
The New Colbert polishes up corporate CEOs like Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber, and engages in an almost embarrassing love fest with the most mainstream of mainstream politicos, Vice-President Joe Biden.
The most interesting and challenging moment during Colbert’s first week never made it to television. During Kalanick’s interview a protestor in the audience disrupted the taping. Uber has drawn criticism from taxi companies for running an unregulated service. Cab drivers’ livelihood is undercut by Uber’s practice of outsourcing jobs to independent contractors who are non-unionized and receive no health or retirement benefits. It’s been reported that Colbert dealt generously but smoothly with the protestor and even incorporated his issue into the subsequent interview, but evidence of the protest never appeared on screen (what a compelling moment of television that would have been) and the question was served up to Kalanick as the softest of softballs, allowing him to easily defend his company without facing any hard follow-up questions. Instead, Colbert gently mocked Kalanick’s next big plan for Uber drivers to deliver food. Good boy, Stephen. I’m sure CBS is relieved. Me, not so much.
This is a long way from the Colbert who made politicians squirm during his hilarious “Better Know a District” segments by confronting them with their own ignorance and hypocrisy. Clearly CBS will not allow that type of satire in a showcase forum like The Late Show. While it’s still early, from the look and sound of things, from the glossy production values, to the kid-glove questions, to the cozy chit-chat with A-list celebrities, to the silly rather than sharp comedy bits, even to the smooth jazz that your great-aunt in Omaha can groove to, Stephen Colbert has decided to be a good boy after all. Another one bites the dust.