Filed Under Late Night
The question of what Stephen Colbert is without the pundit character of "Stephen Colbert" was asked a lot in the run up to the new Late Show. One essential element of The Colbert Report was play. Viewers were invited to play along, to "Yes And" the character of "Stephen Colbert." Become one of the "heroes", to join the Colbert Nation and celebrate Truthiness. To watch the show was to play a character too. The Colbert Report audience was a part of the character.
The audience for Late Show will be different. The Colbert Nation throws open its doors to a broader group of entertainment-seeking immigrants. The invitation to play with Stephen is extended to more folks. Folks who might be very different from those who played with "Stephen Colbert."
There was no clear thesis statement like "Truthiness" in the first episode of this new show to unite the new audience. But there was lot of individual elements that I felt added up to more than themselves to reflect a new viewpoint that celebrates differences.
The show was book ended by two songs. The first being pure patriotism - Colbert singing the Star Spangled location with other Americans in locations across the country. The second, "Everyday People" with a variety of musicians, underlining the lyrics of "different Strokes for different folks" and "we've got to live together." Beyond these two songs however, are Jon Batiste and Stay Human as the house band. The group regularly created what they called "Love Riots" - spontaneous musical parties on street corners and other unlikely locations. Musically the thesis is clear. A Late Show should bring people together.
Loving one another despite out differences is something that came through in one key moment last night. During Colbert's interview with Republican candidate for President Jeb Bush. Colbert refererences his own brother Jay, who was attending in the audience. Colbert mentions he and Jay do not see eye-to-eye politically. Jay shakes his head in agreement. Colbert follows that with "But we love each other", causing Jay reach out his arms in expression of that love.
Lest anyone thinks this neuters Colbert, the host used this moment to ask Bush to detail how he different from his own brother George politically. It's probably the critical question that Jeb needs to answer to reach that moderate middle of the country that isn't reflexively one party or another. It was a brilliant bit of verbal judo.
Even with his competition, Colbert's Late Show is going to be about love. While checking out the new TVs on set, Colbert set his own DVR to record Jimmy Fallon's show for the night. In a short coda for the first episode, Colbert and Fallon get dressed post show in the same locker room. Just two guys who happen to work the same shift.
This story about Jon Stewart having playing good host with neo-conservatives reminds me of that joke that ends “But you fuck one sheep…” Not that Jon’s a sheep fucker, but it’s assumed that he’s supposed to be a confrontational partisan. I think it’s because of his infamous Crossfire appearance which ultimately destroyed the show. A single, out-of-character conversation colors the expectations for what people think Stewart is doing.
It’s amazing how much the media avoids understanding that the most constant target of the Daily Show is the media itself. Particular the constant yelling and screaming of positions with attempts to score points without any attempt to understand, to bring clarity and focus to the people at home. If there’s any one thing Stewart will not do with his guests, even those with views he disagrees with, is add to the frustration that passes for political discourse on TV. Just like he’s shown the news media that they can play a clip that demonstrates a politicians lie, he’s also demonstrating how to make entrancing, education and often, still funny, talk about the issues of the day.
But it often seems many media folks just assume he’s just as much of an assertive pundit as Limbaugh, Hannity or Olbermann. Like what feel like 99% of our news media sometimes. They’re so involved with this sheep, they can’t imagine anyone else doesn’t want to fuck it too.
Tonight on Letterman’s Late Show, the long censored permorfance by the late Bill Hicks finally was shown. Though David Letterman certainly may have failed in 1993, he demonstrated a level of class tonight. Simply admitting by his error, sincerely and completely, he’s shown himself to have grown into one of our most authentic and human comic voices. I imagine some will wonder if Letterman is taking the fall for a short-sighted CBS decision. I can’t see that. Letterman’s never been one for the company line, frequently teasing his home network. Perhaps CBS was bothered by the content, but Letterman likely didn’t disagree at the time.
Of course, Letterman didn’t dwell a lot on the whys of the decision to censor Hicks. I wasn’t disappointed by that. Any attempt to point out the sensitive part of the act (likely the “pro-life” material) could have come off as an excuse. Better to just own up completely, and let any rationale proven wrong become an internal guide for how to run your show.
It was wonderful to see Mary Hicks talk about her son. It reminded me a lot of when Johnny Carson would have regular folks on his show. The authenticity of how people respond to a conversation makes for something often memorable, rather than just a celebrity relating a packaged anecdote. Mary’s simple “OK, what else you want to know” was a simple human and very funny moment after a slight bit of tenseness where she let Letterman know simply, how difficult of a time that was. If Jimmy Fallon’s producers were watching, here’s a unique late night tradition that’s been lost in the past decade or so, and would be a welcome return for a new show.
As for the performance by Hicks himself, it’s aged pretty well. It the audience he performed for that hasn’t. Even in today’s world where gay marriage is the front lines of our culture wars, I have a hard time imagining any late night audience so vigorously whooping and applauding a facetious suggestion that a book about a gay couple is disgusting. (Although arguably, Hicks hit the idea awfully hard to set up his preference for the Two Mommies book.) Bill’s comedy may have been before his time, but at least a part of that audience is still there in 1993.
Update: Here’s the Late Show’s video, featuring highlights of Dave’s conversation with Mary Hicks and the full version of Bill Hicks’s act:
The past couple of days have seen more than a few stories talking about how the new incoming Obama administration will not be great fodder for American’s comedians. But any one of those who talk about The Daily Show hasn’t been watching the show for the past eight years. Because while George Bush was a frequent target for the show, an almost equally bigger target has been the mainstream media which asks questions like, “Can ‘The Daily Show’ survive Barack Obama?”
Modern news, with its obsession with balanced punditry, data overload and technological tricks isn’t going anywhere. Anyone who watched CNN coverage last night where Wolf Blitzer talked to Dana Bash via “holographic projection” knows that the news media will give the Daily Show plenty of grist for building jokes in the future. The only question I have is if Comedy Central will give the Daily Show the budget to make fun of such brazenly inane technological innovation.
The ubiquity of digital cameras may be a bane for some, but I kind of dig how you can see how thanks to web video you can see Robert Smigel at work as Triumph. Watching this you realize how much of a remote like this can come together in the editing.
First up, the actual piece as it aired on Conan:
Now, here’s some footage taken of Smigel while he looked for lines to lay on these guys. Turns out he wasn’t prepared for the guys dressed as Spartans from 300.
So, no gay jokes on his assorted pages of notes. I’m not sure how common it is that he needs those pages. Smigel may not have all that instantaneous knowledge of the fandom that makes for speedy recall of one liners. But he definitely would always be prepped with some pre-written lines based on whoever he expected to show up at any event Triumph was covering. Do you think he needs those notes on other Triumph shoots?
I’m sure it’s also pretty obvious from other remotes but the great thing about having a puppet character means that Smigel can drop in a better line later or, in the case of this clip, cut in the second time he told the joke. You can do that with coverage and editing with a live person, but so much easier here. No need to sync with Triumph’s lips whatsoever.
Next more of the Bomber-Man character.
And someone who didn’t make the cut of the finished piece (along with a piece at the beginning of a different big guy not in costume).
I love how he repeats the same “goo” punchline - he’s not going with laughs from con-goers. He’s going for laughs from the studio audience. So if it falls like a brick here, who cares? They’re cutting the next second anyway (if, or course, they had used that).
With David Letterman having a deal for his writers and Jay Leno having to go without, I’ve been hopeful that it’ll become clear what writer-less television is like. An obvious gap in quality would do a lot to end the strike.
The first night, I don’t think that gap was there. As Johnny Carson said, talk shows are really about the guy behind the desk. That’s the center of the show. Letterman, though he obviously supports the writers, doesn’t necessarily need them. He has the energy to respond to the unexpected, explosively dropping an equally surprising line immediately after. A little bit like Carson, there some fun in watching him recover from a bit gone awry. The writing for the show naturally matches these gifts of Letterman and is sometimes, a bit looser to allow Dave be Dave.
Leno, on the other hand, is a gag man. He obviously reveres the art of joke writing. If only he had the same respect for joke writers. Much of his monologue was, self-admittedly, written by himself. As a WGA member, Leno is not supposed to be writing. I’ll be charitable though, perhaps the rules from the WGA are a bit unclear. But even so, if you’re in favor of the strike and support your writers and their cause, it seem to me that you would err on the side of no prepared material. The uncharitable parts of me wants to draw Leno’s monologue up to ego and competitiveness; he can’t stand to have Letterman have a leg up on him. The comments about “one man against the CBS machine” - it sounds as if he only thinking of himself here, rather than the writing team who works very hard for him. This is what the Late Night ratings competition does to people.
Leno also mentioned about coming back to support the other staffers, upon which the camera cut to a person who supposedly handles the lighting - a slovenly guy sitting in a chair holding up a flashlight. It’s the sort of joke that a lot of comedy writers have made about the make-up of other unions for a long time. A joke is a joke, but I found it bizarre to stick in an anti-union joke in there when you’re supporting the rest of your staff. Is that just me?
With Letterman’s performing style and Leno’s WGA rules flaunting (or unawareness), I’m not sure that the public will be able to tell the difference between a show with writers and one sans writers. Again, I hope it becomes more apparent. Was there enough of a difference? Will there be one?
Update: The ratings are in and Leno beat Letterman last night with a rating of 5.3 to Letterman’s 4.3. I don’t think the strike-aware population is large enough to credit that to “wanting to see a train wreck.” However, I think maybe - maybe - my question is being answered as, according to some earlier notes on Hollywood Reporter, Leno’s numbers fell off as the show went on in some markets and Letterman’s went up. A good sign for television created by writers?
One of the things people wonder about “The Colbert Report” is: “How long can they keep this joke going?” At almost two years now, the character of “Stephen Colbert” shows very few signs of wear. The book “I Am America (And So Can You!)” is a little risky to the persona. You don’t have the contained screwball charm of Stephen Colbert, the person, to back up the jokes. For more than a few of the jokes to land, you have to have that character in your head and read in his cadence. The writers even somewhat acknowledge this in the second chapter:
“That was a joke, in case you couldn’t tell. I don’t blame you if you couldn’t. Can’t tell if someone’s making a joke if you can’t see that person’s face. Big reason I don’t like books. No faces. Can’t tell when they’re being funny.”
Of course, quite brilliantly, they put a picture of Stephen’s smiling face right in the margin there. Still, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book as someone first exposure to Colbert. But for members of the Colbert Nation, this book is just about perfect.
The book is constructed as opinions on facets of American life (including Family, Religion and Sports) and everything considered to oppose it, which is roughly every other chapter. The essays have plenty of lists, pull quotes and factoids - making it perfect for jumping right in anywhere instead of reading cover to cover. In keeping close to the show’s segment “The Word”, the margins of the text have additional jokes in red - although these are more throwaways rather than counterpoints as they often are in the show. It can get a little distracting going back and reading each little joke as you go through the text, but if you’re reading in nuggets rather than chapters, tracking down every joke should be just fine.
Probably because I did read it straight through, some of my favorite parts of the book are the breaks from the character in Stephen Colbert via essays from characters who agree with Stephen Colbert. My favorites among them are God on why he doesn’t answer prayers and the reader’s soulmate who tortures us with the knowledge that she/he would have been right there if we had just made a different choice with our lives. Perhaps some of the most brutal gags in the book are in “The Fun Zone” section particularly in a word find for racist words and a match the ball sack to the neutered dog game which includes Bob Barker as one of the choices.
Not every Colbert show joke makes it into the book - particularly surprising is the lack of an “Alpha Squad 7 Tek Jansen Adventure” - I don’t think it’s even mentioned in the book. Maybe this might take away from Colbert’s calls on publishers to pick up the unpublishable book on the show. Or perhaps, it’s just perfect for the sequel.
One of the most valuable parts of the book is the complete transcript of Colbert’s now legendary address at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. It’s one of the shining lights of satire in this century and done straight in the face of those who needed to hear it most. This book’s not for them, but for those who recognize truthiness when they see it and find reveling in it, rather than cursing it, to be the best way of getting through to 2009.