The Beginning of an Era

Tuesday night at 11:30 is the first episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS.  You might as well tune in.  It’s going to become the best talk show on television—if not the best show, period—and you’ll want to be able to brag that you were present at the creation.

That may sound like a slightly cavalier prediction for a program that hasn’t even aired yet.  It’s not.  At least not for anyone who watched nearly all 1,447 installments of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central between 2005 and 2014 and has some idea of what to expect from David Letterman’s heir apparent.

Really, though, you only need to sample a few random segments of Colbert’s Report to understand what the rest of us have known for years:  Stephen Colbert is one of the great TV entertainers of our time and the most versatile comedian in the English-speaking world.

If his selection as the new Late Show host seemed odd at first, he will very quickly assuage any concerns that skeptical American audiences might have about his capacity to attract a national following.  Indeed, those in the heartland might be pleasantly surprised by how irresistible he is.

Of course, there has been an overabundance of feature stories about Colbert’s network debut in recent weeks, nearly all of which have focused on the supposed mysteriousness of who the “real” Stephen Colbert is.  Considering how his Report persona was an over-the-top caricature—a fictional character, more or less—it is a reasonable question to ask.

Or rather, it would be…if the Internet didn’t exist.

In fact, the answer to, “What is Stephen Colbert like in real life?” is—like 99 percent of all the questions ever asked by humanity—readily available online to anyone with enough energy to run a Google search.

And that is a research project I would recommend, because while seeing Colbert in character—as a willfully ignorant right-wing blowhard—is a singularly pleasurable experience, seeing him out of character—whip smart, witty and warm—is gratifying in an entirely different way.

Taking these two personalities together, it gradually dawns on you that the secret to Colbert’s success can largely be reduced to two distinguishing, interconnected and indispensable characteristics.

First—and most obviously—Colbert is a master class in the art of improvisation, otherwise known as thinking on one’s feet.

And second, he is a polymath—a term most succinctly defined as “someone interested in everything, and nothing else.”

If you require concrete evidence of both and have an hour to kill, I might suggest the conversation between him and Neil deGrasse Tyson at New Jersey’s Montclair Kimberley Academy in January 2010.

Tyson—as you may know—is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of National History in New York.  He is also—as you may not know—the most frequent guest in the history of The Colbert Report.

Yup:  On a show that was ostensibly about politics and other current events, it was a man of science with whom Colbert jousted more than anyone else.

Why?  Because the “real” Stephen Colbert is genuinely intrigued by the mysteries of the cosmos—and by science in general—and he quickly decided there is absolutely no reason his TV alter-ego shouldn’t engage with them as well.  True, the “fake” Colbert always approached such snooty, intellectual pursuits with disdain, but—as with everything else in that topsy-turvy world he created—the cheekiness of the act was mere window dressing for some truly enlightening exchanges.

For a classic example, consider his 2008 encounter with Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo.  When Zimbardo, promoting his book The Lucifer Effect, remarks that hell and evil were both created by God, Colbert interjects, “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. […] Hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God, and his purposeful removal from God’s love […] You send yourself to hell.  God does not send you there.”  To this, Zimbardo sheepishly responds, “Obviously you’ve learned well in Sunday school.”  With a grin, Colbert fires back, “I teach Sunday school, motherf—er!”

He does, indeed.  After a busy week of lampooning conservative ideologues before an audience of godless liberals, he retires to his hometown church to talk to children about Jesus.  What a country.

In his wide-ranging hour-long Q&A with Neil deGrasse Tyson—in which both men are free to speak as their true selves—Colbert opens with the philosophical query, “Is it always better to know than not to know?”  Tyson, the scientist, immediately responds, “Yes,” before adding, “But someone else might have a different answer.”  Then Colbert:  “For instance, Oedipus might have a different answer.”

That’s just a snippet, but it gives you an impression of the breadth of Colbert’s talents as an entertainer.  Specifically, his ability to blend genuine curiosity and intellectual depth with wholesale silliness and innuendo, all the while trusting his audience to follow along with him because, hey, if you’re savvy enough to tune in, then you’re probably also savvy enough to a) get the Oedipus joke, and b) understand why it’s not entirely a joke.

Historically, when it comes to late-night network talk shows, American audiences expect one of two things from their host:  Either that he’s straight-laced and well-informed (e.g. Charlie Rose, Jim Lehrer), or that he’s goofy, entertaining and can maybe-sorta hold his own in the face of a more serious guest (e.g. pretty much everyone else).

In this particular TV universe, Colbert will be the first to combine the best of both, and it will be a glorious sight to behold.

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