Will Stephen Colbert be a great network television host, or the greatest network television host?
Honestly, it could go either way.
Given all the of “can you believe this?” coverage he has received the last few days from the perpetual commotion machine that is cable news, you'd have thought Stephen Colbert was chosen to replace Kathleen Sebelius, not David Letterman. And given the talent Colbert wields, frankly I’d trust him with my medical and dental plan. (And that brings us to tonight's word: toothiness.)
Most of the coverage asked a fair enough question: if we let Colbert be Colbert, will he be as amazing as Colbert is when he’s playing Colbert?
This one I can answer definitively. For almost nine years, Stephen Colbert has been playing three-dimensional chess—on point, in character, damn funny. Network late night isn’t checkers, but to put it another way: Stephen Colbert has been training at altitude. Strike that—he’s been winning at altitude, so come next year he’ll be returning to sea level five nights a week with lungs that are as big as his balls.
Or to put it another way, the fact that it’s hard to describe what Stephen does is proof that what Stephen does is indescribable. As Jones said to Nicklaus on another Sunday like this, he plays a game with which we are not familiar.
Those who are familiar with the real Stephen will also tell you the real Stephen is just as entertaining as his character, and that after the ascendancy of the nice guys in late night over the last couple months—Jimmy, Seth—one thought came to mind when Stephen got the gig: it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy?
Dammit, that was a typo. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Period.
But that hasn’t stopped some conservatives from saying he’s a bad boy, and part of a left-wing conspiracy: that despite Stephen’s near decade as a broad character on Comedy Central—the cable channel that, according to O’Reilly, only stoned slackers watch—he’s really a flame-throwing, Republican-bashing partisan in a highly-choreographed plot perpetrated by liberal CBS.
Among those who didn’t get the joke? Columnist Ben Shapiro, who wrote that Colbert’s act “should be labeled for what it is: vile political blackface.” Which makes me want to label Shapiro’s absurd rhetoric, historical insensitivity, and aggressive fatuousness for what it is. As soon as I think of something.
Bill O’Reilly had already weighed in, calling Colbert a “deceiver” and “one of the biggest mouthpieces for the progressive movement.” Papa Bear angry.
And of course, Rush Limbaugh, who bellowed that “CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America. No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatism. Now it’s just wide out in the open. What this hire means is a redefinition of what is funny.” Never mind that hearing Rush decide “what is funny” is like hearing Kanye decide “what is modest.”
Whether their outrage is real or feigned, one thing is clear: joke’s on them. They don’t know it yet, but I suspect they’ll be happier with the “real Colbert” than the liberal mole they’ve invented in their nightmares.
The real Stephen Colbert is a practicing Catholic. He teaches Sunday school. He can recite chapter and verse of chapter and verse—from both the King James Bible and The Lord of the Rings. His devotion to family values is rooted in, of all things, valuing his family; he’s a comedian who doesn’t claim many demons, but who has suffered enough family tragedy that even Job might pity the fool. Off screen, he’s just a generous man who cares about people and changes lives for the better; he certainly changed mine. (Thanks to Stephen, I was a writer on The Daily Show for many years, so I’ll keep an ear open for when Limbaugh calls me a sacrilegious partisan for my gall to work that job, and for invoking his Job.)
The real Colbert isn't what some people, for some silly reason, seem to fear he might be: a one-trick pony—albeit with one of the most astounding tricks in the history of comedy. And he certainly isn’t who Limbaugh and Shapiro say he is: Keith Olbermann.
He’s Stephen Colbert. Religious. Riotous. Right. So just to tweak Rush Limbaugh, I’ll bet that Stephen will reign for 40 days and 40 nights and then four more years and beyond, and the heartland will be just fine. And in two or three decades we’ll wonder who could possibly replace him.