In a recent opinion piece for the weekly magazine The Nation, Media Studies and Production Chair Geoffrey Baym outlined his predictions for Stephen Colbert’s new job as host of the rebranded Late Show. With the dramatic shift in media venues as Mr. Colbert moves from his niche on Comedy Central’s late night slot, to his new position as a key player in the network talk show arena, Dr. Baym noted what kind of character we should expect out of the refreshed iteration of Stephen Colbert, and after having viewed the Sept. 8 premiere of his new installment of the Late Show franchise, I have come to see that many of Dr. Baym’s forecasts were proven accurate.
Of the most notable of Dr. Baym’s points was an assertion that the nature of Colbert’s comedy would take on, as he stated, “softer modes of political inquiry and activism.” If anything typifies Colbert’s traditional comedic style, it is his caustic, satirical criticism of the American political system. His previous character on his Comedy Central talk show The Colbert Report was an illustration of this as he used conservative punditry (à la Bill O’Reilly) to deliver harsh analyses of the current state of affairs in American politics. At The Nation, Dr. Baym noted Colbert’s “inversion” of the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner as a prime example of this unapologetic and abrasive style. However, in response to his career change from cable to network TV, Colbert will be forced, as Dr. Baym predicted, to ease back on his stringent criticism in order to appeal to a broader mass audience, something that was evidenced numerous times during his first episode’s broadcast.
For instance, during his interview with Gov. Jeb Bush, Colbert asked relatively easy questions about his family, political ad campaign, and basic political stance. While he did pepper in a few quips about his brother’s presidency, as well as recent comments made by the governor’s mother with respect to her disapproval of a continuing family legacy in the White House, it seemed as if the old Stephen Colbert- the one who was waiting in the corner, ready to strike with his sarcastic vitriol- was missing from the scene. His persona took on a less polarizing tone, whether to reflect respect for the nature of his new position or because of direction from his boss, CBS Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves.
Even with this change is his persona, Colbert’s fan base (dubbed the Colbert Nation), was likely one of the biggest incentives CBS had for choosing Colbert to replace the iconic David Letterman. Baym pointed this out at The Nation, and it was affirmed when the audience repeatedly chanted “Stephen, Stephen, Stephen” during his premiere.
With Colbert’s following being one of the “youngest [fan bases] among all news and public information programs,” it would be only natural to assume that CBS was primed to breathe life into the Late Show franchise, as Baym pointed out, as the average age in the franchise’s demographic by the end of David Letterman’s tenure was reaching 60. As Baym predicted, CBS appeared to be courting Colbert’s usual younger viewers by including ads and product placement for movies, technology, Sabra and Oreo.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Colbert’s new performance was the finale performance of Sly & the Family Stone’s song “Everyday People.” With lyrics encouraging unity and respect for all, this spectacle marked the end of an era for the acerbic political satire of The Colbert Report. Colbert has moved on to far less abrasive comedic pastures, as network television is not likely to embrace his former avant-garde style. While the traces of the former Stephen Colbert will always be present, it is evident that, as Baym noted, viewers looking for his “strong voice of political criticism” will have to seek out other avenues to satisfy their craving.
By Chris Mohr, Media Studies and Production