Stephen Colbert Is Caught Between Himself And ‘Stephen Colbert’

Stephen Colbert
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There was a time, not that long ago, when Missouri was the true bellwether state. From 1904 until 2004, Missouri voted for the eventual presidential winner all but one time. (In 1956, Missouri voted for Adlai Stevenson over incumbent Dwight Eisenhower.) This is the Missouri I remember living in, before everything changed after I moved to New York in 2004. (Maybe I am the bellwether?) In 2008, Missouri voted for John McCain and in 2012, Mitt Romney. There are reasons for this, as FiveThirtyEight spelled out back in 2012: An influx of conservative Christians have migrated into the southwest area of the state (namely, near Branson), which has changed the moderate, bellwether outlook of the state.

But when I lived there, what the majority of people thought kind of always seemed to happen. If a movie theater was full on opening night, well, that movie was destined to be a huge hit. (I remember seeing Zodiac in a completely packed New York City crowd and just assuming Zodiac would be one of the biggest movies of the year. Zodiac would finish second to Wild Hogs that opening weekend. I bet all the showings of Wild Hogs were sold out in Missouri.)

Anyway, all of this elaborate setup is to say that I was shocked when, in Missouri for the holidays, my mother told me how much she disliked The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

On its own, this may not seem like a shocking or even mildly important statement. A lot of moms don’t like a lot of things. But even though Missouri has changed over the last 10 years, my mom is still a bellwether. She voted for Obama twice. She loved Letterman. She thinks Fallon is fine, but doesn’t like all the games. She loves Seth Meyers. (Jennifer Lawrence’s crush on Seth Meyers became our Christmas dinner discussion. When you are an only child and an only grandchild, these are the kind of topics that are brought up by your parents when there’s nothing else to talk about.) But, no sir, she is not a fan of Colbert’s Late Show.

When I asked why, she said, “He seems kind of mean during interviews.”

For someone like me who watched Colbert’s Comedy Central show religiously and knows how much of a media darling he was and still is, this is fascinating. And the more and more I watched Colbert after my mother told me this, I concluded that she’s right. Or, at least, I can understand why someone who is not completely familiar with Colbert might think he’s “mean” during interviews.

David Letterman had a reputation for being difficult during interviews, but that wasn’t entirely true. Letterman didn’t suffer fools and he had a habit of either becoming a) a bit nasty to people he considered a fool or b) just totally disinterested. But there was another side to Letterman that made it all worth it. Because when Letterman was engaged and found a subject interesting, there was nobody better. Letterman was a good interviewer because (when engaged) he would actually react to what the other person was saying.

We hear so much about this “character” Stephen Colbert played on Comedy Central for nine years, and most of this is hogwash. Yes, the political ideology is a character, but a lot of the personality we saw on screen is Colbert. Colbert has lightning fast wit and isn’t afraid to use it – which suited his “character” just fine. If something came off as “rude,” well, who cares, it’s just “the character.” The problem that Colbert is having now is that these mannerisms don’t really work when only done at half speed while not playing “a character.”

For Colbert, his interview style is muscle memory now. He’s done so many interviews where he can get away with whatever he wants because of “the character,” that it is now his default interview style. It’s obvious he’s dialed it back quite a bit, but this has created two problems: He’s not listening to his ingrained instincts and when he does, it’s so out of the blue, it all just comes off as awkward. (Or, as my mom would say, “mean.”) There are exceptions, like his in-depth interview with Joe Biden, but the number of interviews that don’t go as well outnumber them.

There was a moment in September when Colbert was interviewing Jesse Eisenberg about Eisenberg’s new book. After Eisenberg made a remark about the book, Colbert replied that he hadn’t read the book. It was weird because the voice Colbert used was the same kind of voice he’d use on his old show, which would have gotten a laugh because of course “the character” hasn’t read Jesse Eisenberg’s book. But here, in this setting, it just sounded rude… even though I know Colbert didn’t intend it that way.

Look, interviewing people is not easy. Interviewing people on camera or in front of an audience is especially not easy. And Colbert’s only been doing this show for about five months. This is still really early and is not some sort of write-off of what he’s doing because, as an admirer of Colbert’s work, I’m sure he’ll figure all of this out. And the ratings have been okay, but on a nightly basis, his numbers are more in competition with Seth Meyers’ Late Night than they are with Fallon’s ratings juggernaut The Tonight Show.

But part of the reason I like Colbert so much is how he can bring smart and honest discussions to the table, and this version we have now seems so gunshy. He seems like someone who is questioning what attributes he should bring from his “character” and what he shouldn’t be bringing. But, again, Colbert as an interviewer is that character. On Wednesday night’s show, Colbert had Mark and Jay Duplass as guests, and Colbert just seemed a bit lost, like he’s in a constant tug-of-war with his instincts.

With certain guests (like when he had Trump on), I don’t think there would be anything wrong with letting the “full Colbert” come out, but we haven’t really seen that. We haven’t seen Stephen being Stephen. Colbert wants so badly to convince you that the guy on The Colbert Report was just “a character,” but the truth is we’re not going to see the Colbert we need until he embraces the side of the character that was him all along.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.