Is 'Late Show' ready for Stephen Colbert's politics?

Mainstream late-night TV has never done politics with the intensity that Stephen Colbert did at Comedy Central. But now, America might be ready.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP­/File
Stephen Colbert participates in the 'The Late Show with Stephen Colbert' segment of the CBS Summer TCA Tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., last month. Mr. Colbert's debuts his show on Tuesday.

As Stephen Colbert prepares for his debut Tuesday night as David Letterman’s late-night replacement, one thing he will not have to do is abandon his political passion – and he has himself to thank for that.

Late-night hosts have always made political jokes, but it was the impact of cable’s “Daily Show,” where Mr. Colbert got his start, and then his “Colbert Report” that primed late-night audiences for serious political content. 

While Colbert has said he will abandon the mock-conservative format of his Comedy Central show, his guest list for the first two weeks suggests he’s not abandoning politics. Jeb Bush comes on his first night, with Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders on subsequent nights.

There is even speculation that Mr. Biden might use his appearance on Thursday to announce a presidential bid.

The mainstream format of a desk, celebrity guests, and a musical act will be familiar. But there’s a sense that Colbert has the opportunity to take his political revolution into late-night “prime time” if he wants to.

“Comedy Central really cleared the way for late night hosts to do that kind of thing,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

The one-two hit of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” at 11 p.m. and “The Colbert Report” a half hour later had an impact far beyond modest audience numbers, which remained below two million on average, says Heather Gautney, a sociologist at Fordham University in New York.

“What Colbert and Jon Stewart did was prepare America for politics to go prime time and to be the main feature of popular culture,” she says. 

The previews for Colbert’s new “Late Show” on CBS hint at typical late-night hijinks, including a drop-in stint at a local access cable show in Michigan and footage of shaving his beard. But political content is now seen in the same light.

“The reason those late night audiences are now primed for more political TV is because political TV is so much more entertaining,” says Professor Thompson.   

These shows got audiences to consume complex political ideas, he says, “without sugar-coating them.” This fan base, who will surely tune in for Colbert’s latest act, “is a more politically sophisticated audience.”

Now that both Mr. Stewart and Colbert have left their original Comedy Central shows, “there is a vacuum,” points out Professor Gautney. Late night is the place for these kinds of programs, she says, suggesting that there is not a viable audience for them in daytime or even prime time. A staple of their success is the phenomenon of clips that live online for hours or days after the show.

For now, politics is an easy target, given the presidential race ramping up. The real test will be to maintain a political focus outside such intense politicking in the mainstream news, Gautney says.

And Colbert will have to reinvent himself, too. Though Colbert assumed the persona of a conservative host on his Comedy Central show, nobody doubted his personal politics were progressive. That’s OK for cable, but tougher at a broadcast network. 

“The folks at Fox News were really upset about this when CBS announced the new host,” says Jeff Cohen, founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College in New York. “They were yelling, ‘Why is CBS bringing such a political partisan? Are they going to turn that time slot into a partisan liberal place?”

Colbert will face pressure from his bosses at CBS, he adds.

Professor Cohen suggests that the show may retain a stronger political focus than other late-night shows, but “it may not always be about current events.”

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