I can’t say I was thrilled when I heard Stephen Colbert was taking over for Letterman next year. Not that I minded (The Popcorn Scoop recommends: “It doesn’t actively appall me!”) but I’m finding it really hard to muster up any kind of enthusiasm about this. My reservations are the ones many people have brought up – first, obviously, the diversity question, because it’s just so absurd at this point. Now, I have heard and I appreciate the argument that the only people experienced enough to take this kind of high-profile position are middle-aged white men (though I’d like to introduce you to my friend Ellen or, hell, if you really want to play this game, Oprah), but it’s still disappointing. I do, however, understand that CBS must make every decision with the understanding that ninety percent of their audience would rise up (very slowly, but still) and rebel at any sort of change, whether extreme or long-overdue. (And as far as Joel McHale replacing Craig Ferguson goes…look, I think Joel McHale is wonderful. He’s hilarious on The Soup, brilliantly multilayered on Community, and not going to have any sort of a movie career if Spy Kids 3 is any indication, but still…really? Joel McHale?)
But that question doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the other one, which is the extent to which Colbert will be neutered when he takes over The Late Show. People talk a lot, and rightfully so, about the incredible work he’s done with the “Stephen Colbert” character on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but while that may have reshaped the way we think of satire in this country, the truth is that Colbert has been doing intelligent, subversive comedy for several decades now. And if you think back to what I said two sentences ago about CBS avoiding any surprises, it makes sense to worry about losing this unique comedic voice. Now, it’s also stupid to worry about this for a year and a half (and for that I blame a news cycle which demands that any routine hiring be treated as a major cultural event, and maybe we’d be more interested in this sort of thing if it didn’t always pretend to be so important, but I digress), and Colbert is smart enough and savvy enough that we’re all probably going to look real dumb a year from now for worrying so much. And yet, I can’t help but think that a look back might be in order, about all the good Stephen Colbert did for humor before becoming a company man.
(1) Exit 57 – “Salmon”
Before there was The Colbert Report (which I assume most of you have heard of), before there was Strangers With Candy (which I assume some of you have heard of), there was Exit 57, a delightfully weird sketch comedy show starring Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Paul Dinello. And holy salmon (get it?) is this acting over the top, but it somehow comes back around again to making perfect sense. It’s strange and doesn’t hold your hand and I don’t get it either, but trust the young Stephen Colbert voice. It does, after all, totally steal the show. Sketch comedy is hit or miss as a form, but this one spirals into such transcendent levels of insanity (partially by being so generally grounded in its setting) I’m inclined to call it a success.
(2) Strangers With Candy – “King of Glory”
I debated which Strangers With Candy clip to choose here, because, while many are certainly funnier than this one, most are not suitable for a family blog (which this is not, but the fact that they’re still not suitable is more a reflection on the show than on me). Strangers With Candy never met a line it didn’t want to cross, but it was so smart about how it crossed those lines that it avoided the South Park-esque extreme for extremity’s sake. But I like this clip because, first of all, Colbert improvised the whole thing, second of all, there’s something sincere about the religiousness of it in this deeply insincere show, and third, the dancing at the end of each episode was always my favorite part. Sure, we can all hate each other and be awful people, but at the end of the day, what’s important is our ability to boogie on terribly down together.
(3) Whose Line Is It Anyway – “S1E17”
I think you can attribute a lot of Colbert’s comic genius to his improv background. There’s no way the “Stephen Colbert” character could have been so sustainable had he not been so good at thinking on his feet, because that’s a character that has to by necessity be let loose into reality, and so has to react to things that fiction might shield him from. In other words, you have to be a pretty damn brilliant improviser to interview the people who show up on The Colbert Report in character. So while I wouldn’t say this is the best Whose Line episode of all time (it’s no Songs of Norway, though what is, really), Colbert acquits himself surprisingly well, and I could easily see him getting much better had he appeared on more than one episode. (Not that it didn’t work out for him – how much of a household name is Greg Proops, Bob the Builder notwithstanding?)
(4) White House Correspondent’s Dinner
It’s become fashionable to mock the “nerd prom” for the way it makes obvious what all of us pretty much suspected anyway about the relationship between celebrities, journalists, and politicians, but of all the confounding things George W. Bush did during his presidency, this is one of them. And there are a lot of great things about this video, but the greatest is the way our fearless leader has absolutely no idea what’s going on (not that that didn’t seem to be his natural expression but– you know what, it’s been six years, I should move on). You can watch as the idea slowly makes its way from his face to his brain – “Ah, look at this fine young man. I hear he plays a conservative…talks about conservative…well, there’s something Republican going on at his show, so this should be pleasant. Wait, that was less pleasant…they told me I need to keep smiling during this, something about two thirds of the country needing to see me as more relatable…oh, but this isn’t pleasant at all! Hang on, that was true! You’re not supposed to say true stuff at this sort of thing! No…stop…I haven’t been criticized in six years, I don’t know how to process this…” I would comment on this, but Jon Stewart already did.
(5) The Colbert Report – “Daft Punk”
There have been a lot of brilliant moments on The Colbert Report, which is kind of like calling that thing that destroyed Pompeii a few rocks. So instead of choosing one of them, I saved myself a lot of frustration and instead chose something which typifies what Stephen Colbert on this show does best – namely, a vengeful, petty, awesomely entertaining fuck you to people who deserve it. And whatever happens on CBS, I hope he still finds a way to gleefully dismantle anyone who tries to get between Stephen Colbert and the best possible thing he can put on the air. It’s found its way off the official Colbert Report website, so I don’t know how much longer it’ll last on Youtube, but let’s all stick it to the MTV execs while we can.