Seven months ago, Stephen Colbert inherited the Ed Sullivan Theater from David Letterman, along with huge expectations for his new show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Publications predicted that he would change late night television, Time Magazine gave him an intimate cover story a few weeks before the debut, and just about every media outlet covered the show the entire week in which it premiered. And yet, by the end of the year, The Hollywood Reporter declared Jimmy Fallon the “King of Late Night,” reporting that Colbert’s show failed to overtake Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel in the ratings war. The general consensus in the media was confusion as to why Colbert didn’t usher in an overhaul of the late night formula.
I often feel at a loss as to how to face a non-believer without sacrificing my convictions. But over the last six months, Stephen Colbert has, whether he knows it or not, provided a model for such situations.And they’re not wrong. Colbert’s ratings are lower than the two Jimmies, and he doesn’t seem to fit into either of the established late night boxes. Fallon and Kimmel both have doubled down on going viral, playing outlandish games with their guests, and airing pre-taped segments like “Mean Tweets” and “Lie Witness News.” And Colbert’s cable counterparts like John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and Trevor Noah have focused on appealing to our nation’s outrage culture in the manner of their mentor John Stewart, picking apart the problematic areas of the media and our politicians while stoking public anger with impeccable skill. Their videos have a viral nature all their own, even if they don’t involve Egg Russian Roulette. Colbert doesn’t conform to either of those extremes, and, as a result, it’s hard to pinpoint where he belongs in the late night conversation. That also may be why his ratings don’t compare to Kimmel’s or Fallon’s.
Yet that’s what Colbert brings to the table: the fact that he isn’t like the rest. Colbert has pre-taped segments, and he does monologue bits that appeal to our outrage culture, but his strength firmly rests in his interview segments. Interviews used to be the backbone of late night shows, and Colbert has brought them to the forefront of The Late Show. He interviews the usual movie stars and pop singers and professional athletes. But he also interviews scientists and colonels and non-profit CEOs and prima ballerinas. He does this because he wants to bring their fields to a bigger audience, yes, but he himself seems to enjoy expanding his own perspective. Part of this involves Colbert inviting onto the show people with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye. And it’s this kind of willingness to engage people with whom he might butt heads that we as Christians should be applauding.
We’re fast approaching a time in our country in which Christianity isn’t the dominant culture. Some areas of the nation have already arrived there, while others are just beginning to feel the movement’s effects. Engaging with people who are opposed to us is going to become more and more the everyday norm. I often feel at a loss as to how to face a non-believer without sacrificing my convictions. But over the last six months, Stephen Colbert has, whether he knows it or not, provided a model for such situations.
In February, when he invited to The Late Show, say, Bill O’Reilly, who is just the kind of conservative pundit Colbert spent the last ten years parodying, Colbert demonstrated a lost art in the world of pop culture: civil disagreement. You can sense the tension between the two at the beginning when O’Reilly ribs Colbert’s talent compared to his own. The audience oohed at O’Reilly’s comments as though they were watching Jerry Springer, but Colbert kept his cool and saved his punches for later, when he called O’Reilly out on his idolization of Ronald Reagan by asking him why Reagan’s increasing the deficit for military reasons was justified. When O’Reilly reduced Colbert’s question to a liberal position, Colbert delivered the thesis for his show, saying, “It’s just a question! We have to be able to ask each other questions.” Colbert was willing to play along with O’Reilly’s ribbing, but in the end he was going to make sure he respectfully challenged O’Reilly to defend his own opinions.
He did the same when Donald Rumsfeld appeared on the show a couple of weeks earlier in January. Rumsfeld was another guest on the other side of the aisle from Colbert, but Colbert was respectful to Rumsfeld and even empathized with him, explaining that the questions Rumsfeld gets asked about the war on Iraq are often unfair. But Colbert does lay out a 2002 memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that implied there was never actually hard evidence of WMDs, and then he asked Rumsfeld a hard but fair question about whether the government withheld information from the people to make the war with Iraq possible. Even if he hadn’t gotten a good answer out of Rumsfeld (and he did), what matters to Colbert’s show and to his audience is that he made the effort to be both fair and hard at the same time. Asking pointedly hard questions is challenging, but Colbert shows us that it can still be fair.
It was a few months earlier in November, though, that Colbert provided his most potent model for engaging in difficult dialogue. He brought HBO talent Bill Maher on the show for a long, freewheeling discussion about politics and religion. Most of the conversation was pretty amiable, which isn’t too surprising, since both talk show hosts are decidedly on the left side of the political spectrum. But Maher is notorious for his vehement hatred of religion of all kinds, while Colbert is open about being a practicing Catholic, so when the conversation turned to religion, you could sense Maher getting testy. Colbert gave Maher an invitation to return to Catholicism, the apparent faith of Maher’s childhood, and while his invitation appeared theatrical and somewhat rehearsed, it also seemed to be in earnest. Maher pushed back, pointing out what he sees is the inherent stupidity of relying on made-up stories to explain what you don’t understand. Colbert parried by calling Maher’s rebuttal what it was, an attack, saying he welcomed it—his religion teaches him humility in the face of such responses. He wasn’t angry, but he was firm and honest. At one point, he even said, “I suck as a Catholic, but that doesn’t mean I don’t keep doing it.”
I’m not going to pretend to see into Colbert’s heart or to know whether or not he’s “truly saved.” Only God can know that, and only Colbert’s close community can speak to whether or not he’s bearing fruit. But I can watch him engage with Bill Maher and learn what it might take for me to do the same with the non-believers in my life. Maybe it takes staying firm in my convictions but not taking myself so seriously. I can watch him engage with Donald Rumsfeld and learn that maybe asking hard questions is worth the discomfort it causes in both the asker and the answerer. I can watch him engage with Bill O’Reilly and learn that maybe I should become more comfortable about publicly disagreeing with people. The church is sometimes such an insular community that models for earnest dialogue can be hard to come by. And there Stephen Colbert is, every night after my bedtime. He may not be the “King of Late Night,” but he’s providing just the kind of model we need.