Is Stephen Colbert Our Last Chance to Have a Great Interviewer on Late Night TV?

Comedy Features Stephen Colbert
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On a long car trip this past weekend, I was listening to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, and caught myself wondering what he’d be like as the host of a late night TV talk show. I consider Maron a great interviewer—one of the greatest I’ve ever heard, at least—and that’s despite the fact that he often talks over his guests, and sometimes seems more intent on working through his own neurotic tendencies with the guest functioning as a sort of unpaid therapist. In fact, these odd tendencies are what make him great. He connects with his guests through his naked honesty, and it brings out their own naked honesty. What would that look like, I wondered, on television?

It would be easy to dismiss this train of thought completely and conclude that the idea itself is impossible. The intimacy Maron cultivates, you might argue, is possible only with the freedom of the podcast format, free from network censorship and also from the gaze of a camera, which leads to self-consciousness, inhibition, and phony image-building. It’s far easier to coax truth from a subject from inside the confines of a garage, but in front of a studio audience, in the glare of the bright lights? That’s a tougher task by far. Not to mention the fact that while Maron has an hour or more, most late night TV interviews run for less than 15 minutes.

But let’s put this (deserved) cynicism aside for a moment and assume there’s a solution. What would that look like?

It certainly wouldn’t look like the current crop of late night hosts, or their recent predecessors. Jay Leno was only interested in kissing ass, and Jimmy Fallon has followed directly in his footsteps, except to a more embarrassing degree—bumbling compliments make for poor interviews. Jimmy Kimmel almost seems to be in a perpetual scoffing state, talking to his guests from behind the veneer of his own cynicism. Conan O’Brien is mostly interested in being funny, which is not a terrible goal, but it leads to an adversarial relationship with the interviewee—as though he’s waiting for them to slip up, at which point he’ll pounce. As for Letterman, he was almost totally disengaged by the end of his career, and while his biting superiority and could be hilarious, it was never designed to reveal anything profound—in fact, he seemed to loathe even the idea of profundity, which also closed him off from lesser, though still compelling, forms of truth.

The closest anybody has come is Craig Ferguson, whose easy style made for a more confidential atmosphere. Still, Ferguson never seemed like he wanted to press his guests, and the interviews lacked that dynamic conflict—a challenging, productive antagonism—you see in someone like Maron, who is never content to settle for platitudes.

Based on these examples, it’s possible to throw up your hands and conclude that great interviewing is impossible on a variety show. Maybe you need a format like Charlie Rose, where it’s all interview, all the time. But as I turned the idea over in my head on that car trip, I realized there was one person who might be able to pull it off, and that person happens to be taking over David Letterman’s spot on CBS’ Late Show in less than a week: Stephen Colbert.

Those of us who love comedy have watched him conduct amazing interviews on The Colbert Report for years, but it’s hard to know how that will translate since he was always working in character. As the conservative blowhard “Stephen Colbert,” he would poke and prod his guests, mostly liberals, and allow them to reveal themselves by overcoming their interlocutor. Each time a guest made a great point, he would meet it with a type of overblown skepticism that allowed them to respond with something that would further solidify the original point. His job was to make them look good by contrast—setting them up while pretending to knock them down. It’s no easy feat, but Colbert excelled. And while he won’t have the framework of that character on CBS, I would argue that successfully interviewing guests through several layers of satire means he has a great chance at success when his only directive is sincerity.

There are a few other very compelling arguments for Colbert. For one thing, he’s incredibly insightful, and he understands human suffering. I’m not the first person to say that this GQ piece blew me away—the way Colbert deals with the death of his father, and the perspective it’s given him about the complications and beauty of life, hit me right in the gut. Someone with that kind of wisdom must also have the exact kind of empathy needed to connect with another person in the superficial environment of a TV studio.

Second, he’s an incredible improviser. After finishing his undergrad degree at Northwestern, Colbert came up through the Annoyance/IO improv theater in Chicago, and later through Second City. You can see his improv skill in interviews, occasionally, but the best example came in his “feud” with Bill O’Reilly. After owning O’Reilly on his own show, he went on The O’Reilly Factor...and owned him again. Watch him adjust to O’Reilly on the fly and lead him around in circles:

He’s such a strong improviser that he’ll be able to maintain control of any interview without seeming to be in control—there’s no need for the kind of insecure browbeating or its opposite, the Fallon-esque fawning, that we see so often on late night TV. Colbert will be able to relate to people on their terms, while keeping the interview on his.

The combination of intelligence, empathy, and ad-libbing brilliance makes Colbert a perfect fit for The Late Show. Still, watching him conduct his first interview will be an entirely new experience, because even when he spoke with Eminem on public access as a gag this summer, he wasn’t totally himself. Come next Tuesday, the defenses will fall, and he’ll take the stage as late night television’s best hope for honest, illuminating conversation.

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