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Stephen Colbert resurfaced this week. giving us the definitive rendition of “Camptown Races” in the process. The departure of Colbert’s Colbeard in his debut “Late Show” video marked the first of many promotional clips blazoning his ascension as one of the greatest network talk show hosts in history. A bold declaration? Perhaps. I stand by it, though.
When word broke last year that Colbert would succeed David Letterman as the host of “The Late Show,” I was beyond ecstatic. “The Colbert Report” was revolutionary in its day, but it was time to shed what had slowly become a wan premise and reach the apogee of his comedic greatness. Right?
Much to my surprise, there were many naysayers. A few were simply angry that “The Colbert Report” would have to end. Some attributed his greatness to the character he created on the show, “Stephen Colbert” (whenever his name appears in quotes from here on out, it refers to the character he portrayed). Others thought the key was his risibly staunch commitment to said character. Interestingly, each strand of pessimism had a unifying thread: The banality of the network talk show format would impede his brilliance at best and destroy it at worst.
To that I say, “Pshaw!” Here are five reasons why Colbert’s version of “The Late Show” will catapult him to the heights of Carson and make you forget all about “The Report.”
1. He’s smarter than almost anybody in comedy
There are few mainstream comedians sharper than Colbert. Offhand, Steve Martin and Conan O’Brien are the only names that come to mind. Last year, Norm MacDonald reminisced about Colbert’s “Saturday Night Live” audition, saying, “The material was almost scholarly. I don’t want to say it was beyond Conan, but it was beyond any educated person. It was more almost like he was just an original thinker. I remember being shocked that he didn’t get the job.”
The best comedians combine three things in a seemingly effortless
manner: wit, timing and intelligence. Wit and intelligence are closely related, but they’re not always inextricably linked. A funnyman can get by with the first two items on the list, but adding a keen intellect dramatically intensifies everything. It’s like comedy MSG, and Colbert has it in droves.
Like Martin, Colbert studied philosophy in college (before transferring to Northwestern, ooh la la). His appreciation for the subject can be seen in the way he thoughtfully deconstructs ideas and then meticulously reconstructs them. That was the true genius of “The Colbert Report.” He doesn’t have to maintain a single character for a decade to showcase this.
2. He not only embraces the absurd, but optimistically embodies it
The root of comedy is the subversion of expectations. The laughs come from the absurdity present in trying to reconcile what was expected with what was presented. For some comedians, the absurdity is doled out a spoonful at a time. For Colbert, it’s measured in dump trucks. This is one of the biggest lessons to be learned from his 1,447-episode stint as “Stephen Colbert,” oafish conservative pundit.
On the show, “Colbert” saw the world around him with a certain amount of glee and wonder. It was a ridiculous approach to a character with an already ridiculous worldview and sense of self. If “Stephen Colbert” were portrayed with a snide demeanor (i.e. as an actual conservative talking head), he would’ve worn thin almost immediately. The choice to play him as a 6-year-old boy on his first trip to the toy store gave “The Colbert Report” longevity.
It also did something else — which was the secret to the character’s success. It made him human. Humanizing a megalomaniacal narcissist is about as absurd as it gets. Colbert did it with aplomb. And while doing it, he not-so-subtly reminded us that even our ridiculous political enemies are human.
Melding optimism, satire and absurdity takes a special touch and a special disposition, which leads to the next point.