When the Emmy nominations for Outstanding Variety Talk Series were announced on July 14 this year, it was the first time in over a decade that neither Jon Stewart’s nor Stephen Colbert’s name appeared on the list of nominees.
Stewart had an excuse. He had retired from his post at The Daily Show last August, making him ineligible for the award—his fresh-faced replacement, Trevor Noah, also failed to make to the cut. But Colbert’s case was different. After receiving 10 nominations and two wins for The Colbert Report, his first partial season as host of The Late Show on CBS was left out in the cold in favor of newer entries like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Late Late Show with James Corden, and even Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Sure, these types of awards may be generally meaningless—after all, the unstoppable Samantha Bee was snubbed as well—but the omission of Colbert was a reminder of just how much he has struggled to match the outsized expectations that accompanied his appointment as David Letterman’s successor.
Early last year, after he had left behind “Stephen Colbert,” his right-wing Colbert Report alter ego, pundits and commentators expended a ton of energy wondering whether America was ready to embrace the “real” Stephen Colbert. He had an auspicious start, finding new ways to mock Donald Trump and proving that he was capable of conducting unironic and even moving interviews with major figures like Vice President Joe Biden. But after the highs of that first week, something changed.
Without the biting comic persona of “Stephen Colbert” to fall back on, Stephen Colbert became pretty boring. He was just like every other late-night host on television, but without the showstopping celebrity performances that drive Jimmy Fallon and James Corden’s shows, he just wasn’t able to break through the crowded field. This was especially true online where his segments almost never reached the viral heights of clips from those shows or his other timeslot competitor, Jimmy Kimmel.
In the increasingly irrelevant Nielsen ratings, Colbert managed to slightly outpace Kimmel but never even came close to beating Fallon. There were even rumors that CBS might swap his show with Corden’s, an idea that would have seemed unthinkable a year ago. “The implication of that question is that the show isn’t good enough in its present position,” Colbert told The Hollywood Reporter last week when confronted with that hypothetical. “So of course that makes you feel bad. But it doesn’t jibe with what I know about our show, so you recover.”
Colbert’s central failure was his attempt to go too broad, to try too hard to reach the type of mainstream audience a network late-night show like his has traditionally needed to survive. Yes, the man is capable of delivering a topical monologue and chatting up movie stars, but those will never be his strengths. At his core, whether he likes it or not, Colbert is a deeply political animal. And that’s why these past couple of weeks have been such a revelation.
The first hint that something was up came when Colbert began his first of several live shows after Night One of the Republican National Convention last week wearing a new pair of glasses. As it turned out, the change was used to further differentiate him from his “Stephen Colbert” character, who made a triumphant return to the airwaves alongside Jon Stewart.
That first night, Colbert revived “The Word,” which kicked off the very first episode of The Colbert Report back in 2005. Except this time, the word was “Trumpiness” instead of “Truthiness.” After that, he was off and running, appearing live every night with a new sense of purpose. Instead of making stale jokes about day-old news, Colbert was one-upping his competition by getting the first crack at a political comedy goldmine. And it didn’t hurt that he seemed to be having a blast doing it.
He traveled to Cleveland to crash the RNC podium and confront Trump supporters. He scored the first reaction from Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Trump’s apocalyptic nomination acceptance speech. And he graciously let Jon Stewart take over his show for the best 10 minutes on Trump’s rise since John Oliver decided to #MakeAmericaDrumpfAgain.
It is worth noting that Colbert’s top two most-viewed YouTube videos since joining The Late Show last fall each came in the past two weeks. In both instances, they were moments in which he generously ceded the spotlight to others. As of this writing, Stewart’s epic takedown of Trump and Fox News is on top with more than 13 million views while Broadway actress Laura Benanti’s spellbinding turn as a plagiarizing Melania Trump is number two with close to 8 million. On top of that, Colbert had his best weekly ratings in months during the RNC, though still fell just short of topping Fallon.
Now, the question is, what happens next? The 2016 election will roll on for only another 100 days. It will undoubtedly give Colbert plenty of material to work with, but even these next couple of months won’t be the bonanza that we’ve seen from the conventions. And regardless of who wins in November, Colbert will have trouble sustaining this political moment he’s been able to seize.
The host gave us another hint on Wednesday night, however, as to what he plans to do to keep this train moving forward. On The Colbert Report, he made a habit of confronting the powers that be, whether through his Colbert Super PAC initiative or by directly rebelling against his corporate bosses.
After bringing back “Stephen Colbert” last week, Stephen Colbert told his viewers that “corporate lawyers” for Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, contacted CBS to demand that he stop using their “intellectual property” on his new show. In a direct rebuke to the idea that someone else could own his “face or name,” Colbert defiantly announced that he was making the character’s “identical twin cousin,” also named Stephen Colbert, a “permanent” member of his Late Show team.
More than the ignorant, America-obsessed conservative pundit, this was the Stephen Colbert that we truly missed. The man who is willing to take big swings in the name of comedy and refuses to toe the line for the sake of being liked. As the real Stephen Colbert delivered a brand new segment called “The Werd,” he seemed more comfortable than he ever did during the Late Show’s previous and short-lived attempts at recurring segments.
If, as Colbert intimated, “Stephen Colbert” becomes a regular correspondent of sorts for The Late Show, it will undoubtedly provide the show with a badly needed cultural relevance boost. But even if Viacom were to ultimately succeed in keeping that character off the air, the fact that Colbert is willing to fight back shows he hasn’t lost nearly as much of his edge as we thought he had.
Don’t be surprised if he’s back in the Emmy game next year.