MaHB / TV: Stephen Colbert’s Trump Card

Esquire Malaysia, November 2015

The Late Show

Stephen Colbert’s Trump Card
How the new host of The Late Show set himself apart from the rest.

By Sophia Goh

Not since Gwen Stefani destroyed the pronunciation of his last name at the 2014 Emmy Awards has Stephen Colbert (pronounced “cole-bear”) found himself standing in the glare of so many spotlights. Along with a curiosity to see how the new chap settles into his role as host of the The Late Show (the throne room of David Letterman for almost 22 years) came a level of scrutiny that wasn’t without its sceptics. But unlike some of his peers that make up the new guard of late-night television, including Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, Seth Meyers on Late Night, James Corden on The Late Late Show, John Oliver on Last Week Tonight and Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, not to mention the not-so-new guard of Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel, Colbert has a trump card up his sleeve.

As the host of The Colbert Report, he was a brilliantly over-the-top caricature of a conservative political pundit. One of the first questions people asked when it was announced that he would replace Letterman was whether he would be doing the show as himself. It was the logical choice, of course, but in stripping off the veneer of irony and sarcasm, the 51-year-old also has found a golden opportunity to remake himself for the next chapter and show television audiences who he really is. The result has been a series of profiles and interviews that not only have introduced Colbert to a far wider audience than his Comedy Central platform could have afforded him, but that also set him up as the most fascinating man on late-night TV.

Colbert has no qualms about discussing his devout Catholic beliefs in interviews, proving himself remarkably well-versed in Catholicism. The Sunday school teacher even did what can only be described as a “religious” interview with Father Thomas Rosica, media attaché to the Vatican press office. In the strictly secular world of mainstream television, Colbert’s willingness to discuss his faith makes him an anomaly. And, in an industry where ratings are everything and the competition gladiatorial – kill your rivals or be killed by your bosses – being different just might be the key to survival.

For now, it’s too early to call in a verdict on the Late Show. Talk shows evolve, and whether or not Colbert will be able to turn his current gig into a long-term paycheck remains to be seen. Nevertheless, he has earned enough viewer credit to keep people interested while he finds his stride, or at least, to keep audiences checking in once in a while to see how he’s faring. There’s been a lot of talk recently about how late-night talk show hosts are pretty much all white males; thus putting networks under some pressure to at least pretend to be interested in diversity moving forward. To that end, Colbert might seem like just another white, male late-night talk show host, but I wouldn’t discount his ability to bring perhaps a different kind of diversity to the table.