These first weeks of Colbert’s Late Show have been exciting for this nearly-life-long fan of late night comedy. I love how he is experimenting with the form, shortening the monologue, bringing the anchor/graphic trope from his his previous show. There are other little meta details and love notes to Letterman I drink up as well, but the single aspect of his show I have enjoyed the most is his handling of the Presidential candidates.
He has been called the “grownup of late night”, which seems pretty fitting. When the candidates go on Fallon, it’s all fun and games, which is in keeping with the lighter legacy of Leno’s Tonight Show, but Colbert has been a different story thus far. He pressed Jeb about his disagreements with his brother. He mashed on Sanders a little about his socialism. And he didn’t let Cruz make the typically fawning references to Reagan without asking him admit he disagreed with Reagan’s amnesty plan for immigrants, or raising taxes. Cruz was performing the classic politician move of evading a direct question and heading straight for his branded talking point, and Colbert interrupted him and made him concede the point, to Cruz’s visible frustration.
It’s maddening when journalists and hosts of all stripes allow candidates to just barrel through a tough question, and so far Colbert has demanded their a-game. Until last night.
The Trump interview was disappointing. Who knows what factors played into it. Perhaps he was reprimanded for being too tough on Cruz, but comedians usually take that kind of reprimand as a near moral obligation to disobey, so I am currently in doubt of that reason, though I could be wrong. There is so much craven insanity in the things Trump says, and I thought Colbert would press him harder. I would have even been satisfied if his only question to Trump had been the birther question, but he pulled his punch when he let Donald get away with a simple “I don’t talk about that anymore.”
I love Colbert’s work so much, and he’s going to have to commit a lot worse than this sin of omission to run me off, but I hope to see more of that tenacity in future candidate and business leader interviews. He has been telegraphing that this isn’t place to try to sell yourself as personable, but to be ready to talk about things you try to evade elsewhere. I hope he stays this course.