Kyle Smith is one of my favorite reviewers to read because, like me, he hates almost everything. The latest thing he hates, though, is a move I agree with – Stephen Colbert’s move to replace David Letterman. Here’s Kyle’s critique:
Colbert’s audience is young, but his act gets old after about five minutes, and his legendary ability to “stay in character” is a myth. What he does is split himself into two personalities. One issues standard liberal boilerplate gleaned from whatever fanciful view of reality is being peddled on Daily Kos or the Huffington Post. No conservative would ever say these things in the first place. Then he rebuts himself. His brilliant breakthrough technique? Say whatever a dumb guy would say.
For once, I have to be more optimistic than Kyle. I’m entirely in favor of this move because Colbert, unlike Jon Stewart, is actually a talented comedian with a great sense of timing whose capability goes beyond his shtick. Colbert’s manic ability to embrace the absurd flows through his roles in other vehicles – Harvey Birdman, Strangers With Candy, or his glorious rendition of “Friday” on Jimmy Fallon’s show. And I expect his late night show will have things that far more resemble this trip to Madame Tussaud’s than anything particularly political.
The point is that Colbert, while a political comedian, is a comedian first, not second. Moving him away from his liberal schtick is a good thing – it’s getting a little tired when it’s not speaking truth to power. I’d also argue that Colbert has a lower tolerance for BS from his interview subjects in a way Stewart sadly lacks today. Looking back at the infamous John Kerry 2004 episode, it really does feel like Stewart lost some of the edge that made him such a solid interviewer. He needs to have some tension to work with, and when he lacks that, he can’t make things entertaining. I don’t think Colbert has that problem – he’s consistently arch and funny, and I suspect he’s really not that much more liberal than the rest of the late night white guys – I don’t watch them consistently enough, but is there any indication Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Conan O’Brien, etc. aren’t typical Hollywood liberals in their views? (Jimmy Kimmel’s the obvious exception, and I don’t watch enough of Craig Ferguson to tell.) Is Colbert really any worse than Fallon or Meyers in how he treats our nation’s ruling class? And is Colbert really any more liberal than Letterman, who was as lefty as ever to the end? And Colbert breaking down and losing it during a joke is still funnier than Fallon.
You have to judge these things against the conceivable alternatives, not the ideal (my own ideal would’ve been Jerry Seinfeld, whose Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee displays his surprising skill at interviews). Moving Colbert to a general audience and away from his daily lampoon of the right is a welcome shift and will be a better display of his talents. I hope he succeeds. There’s no reason you need to agree with someone’s politics to laugh at them, and if you have to agree with them to laugh, they’re probably not very funny. And I think Stephen Colbert is funny.