Ratings and results from a survey published this week suggest that Stephen Colbert’s left-leaning politics may be alienating middle-America viewers from his new Late Show on CBS. That may well be true, but said alienation could also run even deeper than politics. Despite being on a different network and not playing his old Colbert Report “character” any more, Colbert’s Late Show is still extremely focused on him, and heavily leverages the cult of personality he established back at Comedy Central. Which begs the question, if you’re not into him already, what exactly is going to beckon you in to the Cult of Colbert?
Looking back at Colbert’s body of work, the self-centric nature of his writing and performance well predates the Report, extending all the way to Strangers With Candy, his wicked after-school special satire written with pals Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello in the early 2000’s. On Strangers, every character is self-obsessed to the point of grotesquery. Colbert’s sourpuss history teacher, Chuck Noblet, lambasts Sedaris’ depressed 40-something high school student after her father is ripped apart by rabid dogs (seriously, it’s a weird-ass show) not because he’s concerned about her well-being, but because she’s disrupting his class. Dinello’s white male art-teacher stakes a claim on all the trauma from a hate crime committed against black students — and it basically goes on like that for 30 episodes. It’s easy to observe seeds of the me-ness that would define Colbert’s future here, and while Strangers is gleefully subversive satire, it’s also hardly inviting.
The Colbert Report eliminated the meanness of Strangers, but amped the Colbert-as-narcissist element to 1 — to much more successful returns than Strangers. What started as a Daily Show companion spoof of bloviating punditry became a conceit through which Colbert could freely imbue every facet of his show with his passions and peeves. If you watched the Report, you know not only that Colbert satirizes conservative media, but that Colbert loves to sing, Colbert has a deep relationship with his faith, Colbert can quote the Lord of the Rings appendices backwards, Colbert hates bears, and so on.
Audiences ate it up. Through Colbert and his thin but sturdy conservative disguise, the viewer got to vicariously experience the rarest of gifts — a free license to be unabashedly self-celebratory in front of a national audience. It helped that he had the sharpest writing around, and always used his powers for good, so long as it didn’t conflict with the conservative goals of his character (see: his devotion to charity, his shows for the troops in Iraq, the heartrending tribute to his deceased mother). Rarely, though, has a show been so defined by sheer force of personality, and one ostensibly focused so inward, at that.
Now, though, the context has changed. Colbert is on a big-three network and the conceit of the self-obsessed blowhard has been put to rest. But, the approach to his show seems largely similar. The audience is still encourages to chant his name relentlessly at the top of every show; the Ed Sullivan theater is adorned with his face everywhere; recurring bits still have self-referencing names like “Stephen Colbert Gets All Up in Your Faith.” Even last week’s interview with Jane Fonda largely relied on the insular knowledge of their previous encounters on the Report. If you’re middle America, new to Colbert and discovering him for the first time on CBS, it’s not hard to imagine asking what the hell is going on, why is this guy’s name all over everything, and why should I care?
Colbert’s relentless self-promotion has taken him as high as he can likely go. He‘s gone from a barely-watched show on a network with a niche liberal audience to the most-watched network in America. But as the new late-night establishment settles in and the pressure mounts on Colbert to meet the ratings burdens of a more mainstream network, can he figure out how to let the rest of America in on the joke that is the Cult of Colbert? Or, is it simply time to tell some new jokes, instead?