Surely in 2006, the organizers of the White House Correspondents Dinner had no idea what was in store from them when they tapped Stephen Colbert as their keynote speaker.
Every night on his show, The Colbert Report, he adopts the persona of a bullish egomaniacal news pundit unconcerned with actual facts. Or as Colbert himself describes his alter-ego, “he’s a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high status idiot.”
So when Colbert showed up in character to the dinner and tossed off zingers like, “I believe the government that governs best, is the government that governs least and by those standards I think we’ve set up a wonderful government in Iraq,” he had Washington’s elite squirming in their seat.
President Bush didn’t look too thrilled either.
Now, with Colbert poised to take over David Letterman’s gig as host of The Late Show, one must wonder if CBS might have also taken a lot more than they bargained for.
“I no longer need a cable subscription for the privilege of watching Stephen Colbert... there is no greater joy than to see a great man who works as hard as he can everyday and deserves all the success in the world actually getting that success,” Colbert’s mentor and former boss Jon Stewart said on his program The Daily Show after the announcement was made.
Colbert has revealed to the New York Times that he plans to leave his character at the door and host the Late Show as himself. But if CBS thinks that means they made a conservative pick for Letterman’s replacement, they have another thing coming.
That’s because for the past eight years, Colbert has thrived on subverting the political landscape. From starting his own SuperPac to reveal how campaign donations can spiral out of the control, to running for president, to testifying before congress, Colbert is in his element by being unpredictable and showing zero tolerance for stupidity.
But fueling the, at times, scathing nature of his comedy is a sense of irreverence gleaned from his days working for the improvisational theater troop Second City. Some of Colbert’s best moments are when he’s trying to keep a straight face at the absurd world he’s created for himself.
In that sense, he’ll be a fine competitor against Jimmy Fallon who took over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno two months ago. Fallon, for his part, has totally renovated that show from the stiff complacency that Leno kept it in for over a decade.
In his short time as host, Fallon has sung “Folsom Prison Blues” with Russell Crowe, impersonated Valdimr Putin in a mock Putin/Obama phone conservation over the turmoil in the Ukraine and gleefully gotten down with Will Smith for a bit showing the evolution of hip hop dancing. Fallon has not spent a minute on the air without being utterly engaged, enthusiastic and thrilled to have the job.
That kind of unadulterated eagerness has been a pleasure to watch and it is likely Colbert will bring that same kind of energy to The Late Show.
The two, after all, are cut from the same cloth. Unlike their predecessors who preferred to keep their audiences at arm’s length and maintained a detached air to their comedy, these two Saturday Night Live and improvisational alums (Fallon hailed from the other famous improve troupe, The Groundlings) are constantly engaged with their audience both at home and in the studio.
Colbert has his “Colbert Nation” – his legion of fans who happily do his bidding whether it be changing a Wikipedia entry on Elephants to reflect blatantly untrue facts to getting them to attend a massive rally at the Washington Mall in droves – and Fallon frequently relies on Twitter to connect with his audience.
“Jon Stewart has characterized what he does as sitting in the back of the room and shooting spit balls. I am the spitball. I look to shoot myself in it and see what it’s like when I’m in a news story,” Colbert said in a Google Talk lecture in 2012. “Most things I don’t initiate...when they asked me to testify before congress, I told them, ‘You know this is going to be a terrible idea.’ And they said, ‘We know, we want you to come anyway.’” Despite coveting the gig, it’s highly likely Colbert issued the same type of warning to the CBS network brass when they offered him the job.
Luckily for us though, CBS didn’t listen and Colbert will go head to head against Fallon sometime next year.