Stephen Colbert Has Found His Voice In An Impossibly Tumultuous Time

On Tuesday night, after watching that thing — it’s pretty tough to call it a “debate” — there was Stephen Colbert afterward waiting, live, to comfort us like a hot plate of macaroni and cheese. And that’s not to say Colbert wasn’t short-circuiting Tuesday night like a lot of us were, but what made it comforting was, away from the post-debate news analysis, it’s human nature to want to ask someone, “Hey, that was messed up, right?” And Colbert was there live last night to tell us, “Yes. Yes, it was.” Or, specifically, after CNN’s Dana Bash called the debate a “shit show,” Colbert pointed out that after a 90-minute poop, we usually feel better. The thing is, over the last six months Colbert’s show has felt comforting in a way I wasn’t expecting. I honestly can’t get enough of him right now.

Now, this is surprising to me because I wasn’t a huge fan of his show pre-pandemic. Sure, I loved The Colbert Report, but ever since Colbert took over The Late Show in 2015 there’s been a weird disconnect. He’s never seemed truly comfortable. (Remember when things were going bad enough there were rumors he was going to be replaced by James Corden? Could you imagine that now?) It’s hard to pinpoint, but it’s as if Colbert couldn’t quite figure out who he was performing for between his live audience and the at-home viewer. We have to remember, Colbert isn’t a standup comedian (like his predecessor David Letterman). He came from the world of sketch comedy. He’s a performer. His previous gigs as a host on The Colbert Report and a correspondent on The Daily Show were performances. Then he was basically being asked to go out there and be something that kind of went against his natural tendencies. And it was, at times, pretty awkward. During interviews, he’d sometimes drift back into his Colbert “character” almost as a defense mechanism, and what was funny on his old show now became rude. And, strangely, he’d then find himself going for the cheapest laugh possible to rile up his audience, then have to later apologize.

Look, he certainly got better over the last five years, but something just always seemed off. Like Colbert still didn’t quite know what to do and, frankly, that he wasn’t all together enjoying the experience. And then the pandemic hit…

Colbert was the first late-night host to start broadcasting from home. At first, it was crude, little snippets filmed on his phone to introduce some older clips. But, back then, god, it was great just to see anyone at all. To know there were other people out there stuck at home just like us. And I also know this put pressure on the other late-night shows to start producing shows at home. Shows that thought, without a studio, they’d just be off indefinitely. It wasn’t long before Colbert was holding what felt like fireside chats from his house. Even the nook of his house he chose as his backdrop was comforting. Colbert, free from having to make an in-studio audience laugh, suddenly found his voice. His natural instinct of performing for a camera was well-suited for his (and our) current situation. Colbert’s warmth and empathy, somehow often missing from his regular show, now became the focal point of what he was doing every night. Colbert became less an entertainer, less a character, and presented himself as a Stephen Colbert, human being. This late night show I used to find awkward and forced, now became something I had to watch every night – a strange beacon of hope and humanity in a dark, anxiety-filled time.

On his show, Colbert says he misses the audience, but I’m not convinced that’s true. Oh, sure, I suspect he does miss the applause when something lands, but I’m not convinced he misses having to cater the show around that. What we see now is the pure essence of what he wants to do and the show is better for it. He honestly seems happier – and not about the way the world is going or our current predicaments – but, as a host, he seems looser and enjoying himself much more. It’s hard to fake that. A thing he’s done is he leaves in a lot of his mistakes, and the subsequent laughter that follows. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him express as much joy as he does now.

Also, his interviews have improved drastically. It’s almost as if, before, he was more worried about entertaining the audience than conducting an interesting interview, which often wound up at odds with each other. Now, he’s somehow more focused and more freewheeling, willing to go down strange tangents, not worrying if the audience right in front of him understands or not. But, regardless, Colbert is actually talking to people now. He’s listening to what they are saying as opposed to thinking of a witty comeback, or whatever, to get the audience going. Even his nightly chats with Jon Batiste have taken on more importance. It felt like in the past he was just “checking in with the band,” as opposed to now when he genuinely wants to get Batiste’s opinions on current events. Batiste isn’t even in the same state as Colbert, yet he feels like a much bigger part of the show. Honestly, he’s a completely different host now.

Look, I want the world to go back to normal. Living in New York City these past few months have been, let’s say, “trying.” And with winter coming, I suspect things will get worse again before they ever get better. But the one exception is Stephen Colbert. I like this format. I don’t want it to go back to the way it was. He’s much better like this. It’s like cozying up to hang out with a fun, empathetic buddy every night. Or, again, like last night, to be comforted by someone saying, “Hey, you’re right, that was pretty nuts.” To sit there and agonize on-screen about what that chaotic debate — fueled by a seemingly feral President of the United States — means for the country. He was live every night during both conventions, trying to make sense of it all. And every night I watched, just happy to hear a sensible human voice. He wasn’t going for laughs (though he still had those) as much as he was going for some semblance of sanity. Over the last six months, Colbert has finally found his way as host of The Late Show, and it was just in time.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.