If you’re a fan of television you may know that David Letterman is retiring in 2015 and that his replacement is Stephen Colbert! If you’re not at all a fan of television, it’s possible you don’t know Stephen Colbert, who is the two in the one-two punch of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert‘s The Colbert Report.
One thing that makes Colbert stand out is how he plays a character who shares his name. Sort of. Stephen Colbert is a parody person played by Stephen Colbert. The fake is highly conservative, utterly ego-maniacal and massively ignorant. Part of the schtick is that Colbert usually appears in public — even testifying before Congress — as Colbert.
So I’m looking forward to seeing the Colbert behind the Colbert mask!
Colbert’s not the first comedian to use a fake persona. Many will remember Andy Kaufman, who starred as Latka on the TV show Taxi. Kaufman’s stand-up comedy acts were bizarre (to say the least), and he created the fake person Tony Clifton. (His TV career began on SNL, but he became famous on Taxi.)
Stepping into the Way Back machine, some may recall how Jack Benny had a stage persona. He pretended to be a major cheapskate.
The classic Benny short skit involved a mugger accosting Benny at gunpoint. “Your money or your life!” demands the crook. Benny just stands there. The robber gets more aggressive, waving his gun in Benny’s face he again demands, “Your money or your life!! What’s it going to be??”
Benny finally responds, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”
The thing about Jack Benny was that everyone who actually knew the man loved him and knew him as a kind and generous soul. His stage persona was just that: a stage persona, a well-known pretense.
Andy Kaufman, on the other hand… was a bit of a different fish. (People who were close to him say he was a consummate professional fully aware of what he was doing. From the public’s view, he was definitely… unique!) There’s an okay movie about his life: Man on the Moon, with Jim Carrey as Kaufman, and while the physical resemblance is downright eerie, Carrey’s acting job is amazing. It’s one of those movies that shows you what a good actor he really is.
(Another old-timer with a stage character was Foster Brooks, who portrayed a drunk man — an alcoholic, really. Many would consider his act inappropriate these days, but he was very funny in those gentler, more ignorant, times. Red Skelton and Lucille Ball also both had very funny routines involving drunkenness. Those bits might be frowned upon these days, too.)
There is also the case of the infamous Howard Stern, radio “shock jock.” I was a fan for a while, but I was never quite sure how to take him. Was he serious, or was he playing a caricature intended for mocking? Was he highlighting certain ugly aspects of society… or was he just leveraging them for his own success?
And on some level, that’s a concern I have about Stephen Colbert.
Not that he’s actually a right-wing nut job (clearly he’s not), but I sometimes wonder how much of that massive ego is truly pretend anymore. Fame has a way of getting under the skin, and the way he seems to need to perform with so many of his musical guests makes me wonder sometimes.
To be fair, it’s equally possible he’s just excited to have those musical guests and blown away by the chance to perform with them. (Part of me responds: Perhaps, but it’s not a good choice and shifts focus from his guest to him, which I find distracting.)
And — full disclosure — I’m not a full-on fan of the show, so take this all with a grain of salt. I think the reality is that Colbert is a comic genius, but just not one I can fully appreciate.
Pretty much the same view I have of Jerry Seinfeld. (On the other hand, the reason I’m not a full-on fan is because of my perceptions, so… [shrug] whatever. And don’t get me wrong, I really do like the show… it’s just that some aspects of it irritate me and get in the way of my enjoyment.)
Another example of something I find irritating about The Colbert Report is the interview, which is frequently — due to the clowning around — a complete waste of a segment in my eyes. I’ve begun to suspect that the seriousness of the interview is somewhat correlated with Colbert’s opinion of the guest. With guests he clearly reveres, there is a decent chance of a serious interview.
What annoys me in particular is how he starts from his desk, announces the guest and then does one of several canned varieties of prancing ego-dance over to the interview table. (Compare this to the low-key, level-headed way Jon Stewart does it. A simple introduction, a walk-on, sit-down and go.)
Or the way every show begins with the audience chanting, “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” Or the almost cult-like sense of the “Colbert Nation” and the “Colbert Bump.”
Or maybe just all the noise. It takes over 60 seconds to get past the chanting and the long applause and cheering at the show’s open. For a show with only 20 minutes of content, that’s a big bite.
Hopefully I’m just seeing a clever and consistent mask. Hopefully someone who has achieved success pretending to be a caricature — even in off-screen public appearances — can drop the mask easily.
Hopefully we’ll all meet the warm and funny Stephen Colbert! (He has already said he will not be playing his character.)
I’ve never been one for the late night shows (too many commercials), but I’ll definitely be watching (at least for a while) Late Show starring Stephen Colbert!