Washington beware: Stephen Colbert’s coming for you
This article originally appeared on Politico by Hadas Gold and Dylan Byers
Stephen Colbert is known for tearing apart politicians with an acerbic, unforgiving wit — a trademark that strikes fear in the heart of many a public official.
But if Washington’s political types were scared of being the butt of Colbert’s jokes on Comedy Central, they’ll be downright terrified when he replaces David Letterman as host of “The Late Show” next year. That appointment, which CBS announced Thursday, will likely increase his audience threefold.
Colbert has built his career by lampooning, satirizing and often embarrassing both the political class and the media establishment that covers it. When politicians visit Letterman, Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel, they can expect a relatively friendly, tame interview that leaves their reputation unscathed. A segment with Colbert, by contrast, can be a trial by fire.
“He’s clearly the most political late night host, and arguably the most partisan,” said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University and the author of the forthcoming book “Politics Is a Joke: How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life.”
“I think he’s probably going to stir more controversy than a lot of others would,” Lichter said. “He’s going to take his own political sensibility as part of what he does. There’s probably going to be more complaints and controversies than there would be with a Jimmy Kimmel type.”
Colbert has also had an unparalleled obsession with national politics outside the show, having run for president, launched a super PAC, co-hosted a political rally on the National Mall, attended a state dinner (where he sat next to first lady Michelle Obama) and delivered a White House Correspondents’ Dinner address. Colbert even attended this year’s Gridiron Dinner, an annual white-tie event hosted by an exclusive club of prestigious Washington journalists.
Here, too, Colbert has not shied away from his biting brand of humor. There’s a saying historically associated with the annual correspondents’ dinner stand-up routine, which is that the speaker should “singe, not burn.” Colbert all but ignored that maxim when he delivered jab after jab at President George W. Bush in 2006.
“I know there’s some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent approval rating,” Colbert said during the address. “But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking ‘in reality,’ and reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Colbert’s criticism of Obama can been equally severe, if less frequent. In response to the news that the National Security Agency was spying on Americans’ phone calls, Colbert said, “Folks, I’m going to be straight with you. I’m conflicted here, folks. On the one hand, this proves Obama is a tyrannical despot who ignores all the rules. On the other hand, I kind of like tyrannical despots who ignore all the rules. Shows spunk.”
Colbert’s future competitors — NBC’s Fallon and ABC’s Kimmel — are not nearly so preoccupied with Washington, nor with political satire. Like Leno and Letterman before them, they practice a more general brand of humor. When they do venture into the political, they often adhere to the traditional formula of a setup (about, say, New Jersey traffic) followed by a punchline (about, say, Chris Christie’s weight), rather than offering the kind of relentless, policy-informed excoriations that characterize Colbert’s monologues.
“He actually knows a lot about politics,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who served as a media adviser to George W. Bush and John McCain. “He probably knows more about how PACs work than most of the people in Congress.”
To be sure, Colbert’s “Late Show” will be different from “The Colbert Report.” Most significantly, Colbert will host the show as himself, not as his alter ego.
“I won’t be doing the new show in character, so we’ll all get to find out how much of him was me. I’m looking forward to it,” he said in a statement Thursday. (This had been a subject of much concern on Twitter. “OK, Colbert replaces Letterman,” Larry Sabato, the veteran political analyst, tweeted. “But WHICH Stephen Colbert?”)
Still, the next iteration of Colbert will not be altogether different from the current one, and it is all but impossible to imagine that he’ll forgo the political focus that has made him so appealing to Comedy Central’s viewers.
Though Colbert’s primary targets on Comedy Central are conservative — he plays a mock Bill O’Reilly figure on “The Colbert Report” — he’s capable of eviscerating liberals, too. From 2007 to 2010, Lichter’s Center for Media and Public Affairs coded Colbert’s satire and found that the host targeted Republicans 57 percent of the time and Democrats 43 percent of the time. In the final year, as Obama’s approval numbers began to wane, the ratio achieved near parity.
Still, Colbert has his critics. Within hours of CBS’s announcement, Rush Limbaugh, the influential talk radio host, announced that the network had “declared war on the heartland of America” by giving Letterman’s chair to Colbert.
“No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American, conservative values,” Limbaugh warned listeners. “Now it’s just right out in the open. This hire is a redefinition of what is funny, and a redefinition of what is comedy. They’re blowing up the 11:30 format under the guise that the world’s changing and people don’t want the kind of comedy that Carson gave us or even Letterman, they don’t want it anymore. It’s media planting a flag here, it’s I think maybe, media’s last stand, but it’s a declaration.”
The audience for the Colbert show is indeed progressive: A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that just 12 percent of “Colbert Report” viewers identified as Republicans, while 38 percent identified as independents and 45 percent identified as Democrats. A February poll by SurveyMonkey found that just 11 percent of viewers who responded voted for Romney in the 2012 election, whereas 73 percent voted for Obama.
Then again, the “Late Show” audience is also progressive. According to the same survey, just 22 percent of respondents voted for Romney, while 58 percent voted for Obama. And not every conservative believes Colbert the man is guilty of a liberal bias.
“He has no obvious political bias, despite the character he currently plays,” McKinnon said. “He’ll yank a chain for sure, but at the end of the day, he’s respectful and diplomatic. A real gentleman crackup.”
Some fear that the “Late Show” gig will limit Colbert’s ability to ridicule politicians, if only because broadcast television is more cautious than cable. Yet Colbert’s ability to break out of character may allow him to expand beyond his familiar satirizing of conservatives — a requisite aspect of his current show — and go after Democrats and Republicans, and the political and media establishments in general, with equal abandon.
Indeed, Colbert and Jon Stewart, whose “The Daily Show” is Colbert’s lead-in, are among the few late-night figures to target the political media establishment specifically.
“There’s not a lot of joking about the media. Other institutions, like Congress ,get skewered a lot, but there’s surprising little humor about the media on late night,” Lichter said. “Colbert represents one of the great exceptions to this, the other being Jon Stewart, [which likely means] you’ll see more humor about journalists and possibly resentment by journalists once we start seeing what his monologues are like.”