It goes without saying that Stephen Colbert’s transition from “The Colbert Report” to “The Late Show” has brought some drastic changes. Gone is the fictional conservative talk show host of “The Colbert Report,” replaced by a Colbert viewers have never seen before. But who is this new Stephen Colbert? Some critics, such as Frank Rich of New York Magazine, have suggested that while Colbert is still acting as a character to some extent, he is also bringing his real personality to “The Late Show.”
According to Rich, Colbert cannot be successful on the show as his real self, especially with recent religious references on his show during interviews with Oprah Winfrey and Joe Biden. Rich, however, could not be further from the truth. Not only has Colbert managed to bring his own personality to the show, but he has also managed to incorporate it into the show’s humor aspect.
What most people do not know about Colbert is that he is a devout Catholic. In fact, in an interview for The New York Times Magazine, he announced that he attends church regularly, and that “for the world [he] moves in professionally, [he] may seem monastic.” According to a Washington Post report, he also observes Lent and teaches Sunday school, and he even quoted Jesus in a speech to Congress about migrant farmers. But one of the critical parts of Colbert’s faith while growing up, said the report, was that he “was raised to believe that you could question the church and still be a Catholic.” And this is why the new religious take on his show works.
For old viewers of “The Colbert Report,” the idea of religion brings forth memories of Colbert attacking the Catholic Church with vicious satire, which served as one of the host’s key sources of humor. Now, on “The Late Show,” he has managed to keep this tradition alive, even devoting a large portion of the Sept. 24 episode to a series of “pope jokes” to anticipate the arrival of Pope Francis in the United States. The jokes were met with thunderous laughter and applause.
What is different about “The Late Show” is that viewers also get the chance to see Colbert’s alternate side of religion. A report from The Atlantic referenced his interview with Oprah Winfrey on the Oct. 15 episode as an example. In the interview, Oprah brought religion into the conversation by saying that she used to recite Bible verses as a child. Colbert then allowed the show to take a serious turn, asking her which was her favorite. When she prompted the same question, Colbert responded with one from Matthew.
“So I say to you, do not worry, for who among you by worrying could change a hair on his head, or add a cubit to the span of his life?” The audience had the rare opportunity to see a more personal side of Colbert, who maintained the humorous nature of the show by joking that this basically means that worrying is a sin.
In another recent interview with Joe Biden on the Sept. 10 episode, Colbert again brought religious undertones to his show. During a discussion of Biden’s son Beau’s death, he asked Biden how faith helped him through this tragedy in his life. This launched a response from Biden about his Catholic traditions and the comfort he finds within them. There is nothing preachy about Colbert or Biden’s methods, only a way of modestly sharing something that has had a massive influence on each of their lives.
What is most important for Colbert’s “Late Show” career is that he finds balance. “The Late Show” brings with it a new set of responsibilities. Yes, the main goal is laughter, but there are some interviews that must be serious; Colbert cannot joke about grief and faith in front of a grieving Joe Biden in the same way that Jon Stewart could not joke about the Swat Taliban during his interview with Malala, and the same goes for any other host.
When it comes to religion, Colbert has managed to find a balance between two sides on his show; one that is vulnerable to satire and humor, and another that is genuinely personal. While New York Magazine’s Frank Rich thinks this negatively reflects the show’s “concern about higher matters,” others could see this as a new and unique potential for an otherwise ordinary late show.
Colbert’s more personal touch is already a beginning. Perhaps under his watch, a show full of humor and entertainment can double as a way to promote higher thinking and questioning of larger ideas as they apply to us.
Alex Oliveira is a contributor to the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.