Stephen Colbert’s incarnation of The Late Show has experienced some turbulence in its brief tenure. After a strong opening, the CBS program has fallen behind Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, and competes closely for third-place against with Jimmy Kimmel Live! In a recent New York Times interview, Colbert admits to having made some mistakes, including being reluctant to bring back “Stephen Colbert,” and being so nice to Donald Trump.
The first phase of a reboot started back in April, with the positioning of Late Show showrunner Chris Licht to handle all of the logistical challenges. Surprisingly, that position had not existed prior to Colbert (and probably says a lot about Letterman’s experience and omnipotence). Licht’s ability to run interference allowed the host to focus on sharpening the show, including July’s seismic event–the return of “Stephen Colbert,” the faux-conservative pundit and former host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report.
While creatively and legally encouraged to shut the door on that persona, resurrecting “Stephen Colbert” (or his identical, identically-named relative) allowed the host to reacquaint himself with past success. “If I do things that are like the old show,” Colbert admits, “it was a good show.” More importantly, it distills the unique DNA that he brings to late night. While Fallon is a talented, ingratiating song-and-skit man, and Kimmel is able to bring some biting snark and pop-culture irreverence, where does that leave Stephen Colbert? According to Colbert, his strength is pointedly documenting the train-wreck of current events. In his words, it’s about “being gobsmacked by the news and walking out and going, ‘Can you, believe what this person just said?’”
As Colbert has had some fits and starts finding the right tone for the show, it also means he has some regrets and missed opportunities. One of his biggest was his kid-glove treatment of Donald Trump last year. By now, Trump has become an impacted hemorrhoid on the ass of American political discourse (it’s not even clear that the cloying Fallon should be nice to Trump.) But back in 2015, he was still three-fifths punchline, one-fifth actual primary candidate, one-fifth soulless combover. And that’s when Colbert let the Great Pumpkin slip right through his fingers.
“I tried being gracious and pointed at the same time, and got almost nothing out of him,” Colbert said, looking back. “It was actually boring, because he wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Being nice to a guy who isn’t nice to other people, it doesn’t serve you that much.” So while Colbert will continue to tinker, he should have a good five weeks or so to continue to sharpen his set of political skewers and steak knives until the election, providing more opportunity to show where the host excels beyond his late-night peers.