stop sheathing your wit, stephen colbert


We tried to watch Friday’s Late Show. We failed. Here’s why.

My husband is more forgiving than I. He’d been doggedly trying to keep up with Stephen Colbert’s new show for weeks. I, meanwhile, had abandoned it the week of the show’s obsession with the Pope’s visit. Less because of the presence of religion than because of the infantile fanboyishness attendant upon that religion as trotted out in the show. I kept hoping for him to turn a leaf and to have some useful critique or commentary on the Pope, but no–it was all unicorns, rainbows and choirboy anecdotes. Kthxbai.

However, we tried, last night, to make watching Colbert part of our routine again–namely because it would be better (I thought) than wrestling with the database I had to normalize by midnight. But it was awful. I’m just going to focus on one bit to explain why, though this unrealized potential is a hallmark of the entire hour, day after day, week after week.

The show turned its gaze to several recent revelations delivered by author J.K. Rowling about the Harry Potter series–that she wished she had paired Hermione with Harry, for example, or that Americans would call muggles non-mags. What the show could have turned its gaze to, and only made a half-hearted attempt at, was the ridiculousness of the media’s response to these revelations. In a brief montage of various too-excited morning talking heads, we got to see all sorts of people feign jaw-dropping shock at what were pretty empty epiphanies. “Mind. Blown,” they kept repeating, sometimes miming the explosion going on between their ears. It was ridiculous, and the show could’ve pointed that out in more than a 15-second montage.

Instead, we cut to a kitschy scene involving a camera filming up from the bottom of a cauldron in which Colbert, with the sprinkling of magic dust onto a staged Hedwig-delivered letter, further revelations about the series. The scene was filmed live, not pre-recorded and then played at the key moment, so it may have just spawned from a desire to break out the desk camera. But such desires, if backed up with nothing creative behind them, should be squashed.

Which did not happen here. Instead we got to listen to Colbert expound upon all sorts of harmless fake revelations about Potter, from Snape’s full name (Snapple, har har) to the news that Harry Potter had been seen kissing his own patronus (okayyyy). The flaw here isn’t that these revelations were harmless. It’s that they weren’t funny. They read as some middle schooler’s list of Weird Things That Might Happen in Harry Potter, doodled on notebook paper in front of the lockers before class started for the day. Nothing funny enough to put on national TV. Not by a long shot.

The toothlessness of the jokes was made worse by the inclusion of two lines that were far from toothless–and which showcased all the more keenly what the show could be doing. In criticizing one anchorwoman’s comment that the “t” in Voldemort had been revealed to be silent, “like Colbert,” Colbert listed a bunch of similarities between Voldy’s imagined evil empire and America, stating that they aren’t so different–“after all,” he adds, cutting to a map of Cuba with Guantanamo Bay clearly labeled, “we have our own Azkaban.”

“Holy shit!” I cried, turning to my husband. “This show just became relevant again!” A beat later, Colbert glanced at the map and waved a wand, lilting “Arabo disappearum!” Holy shit indeed.

That is what they should have been doing the entire time. That cuts both ways. That provides meaningful critique, to somewhat counterbalance the feckless jaw-droppery of the newspeople in the earlier montage. Why would you not do that the entire bit? Why would you not put whoever came up with those lines in charge of the entire cauldron routine, and put something with actual weight in there? Colbert is pulling his punches, time and again, trying to appeal to a demographic who the network seems to imagine is too old, tired or dumpy to appreciate biting humor. I don’t know who these people are supposed to be, but I doubt they’re watching.  Familiar with the Colbert of old, they likely never tuned into the new show in the first  place. And this attempt to appeal to them, to bring them back with lame jokes and gimmicky camera angles and utterly shit amounts of social critique, is ruining the show for the people who poured over in droves for the old Colbert.

It is true that there are a number of biases working in me already–a preference for stand-up over improv, for one, and strong affinity for gritty confessional humor instead of third-party point-and-laugh fluff. My husband tended bar in a comedy club for six years; I grant that it (and the free tickets that came with it) colored my expectations in the humor department. But you don’t have to keep it clean and still say absolutely nothing. Look at Jackie Kashian. She should be the polar opposite of Amy Schumer (whom I adore), avoiding as she does next to all talk of itchy assholes, unseemly communicable diseases, or the questionable endowments of previous ex-boyfriends. It should be too clean for me. And yet then, in the middle of your laughter, Kashian can suddenly be referencing–reaaaally delicately, keeping the focus only on her to the point where trigger warning obsessives should hold their damn tongues–the act of being molested as a kid on a bus, and the lasting upset that results from that. And the first time I saw this was definitely a “holy shit” moment. Because the way she does it, I’m still laughing at the bit, but I’m also laughing a little hysterically with relief because she’s talking about being groped by some piece of shit on a bus and I was too and she’s okay so that means I should be too and and and. And it’s NOT toothless. It’s clean but it’s not toothless.

Colbert used to be able to do that. Now he won’t let himself. No, I don’t blame the network; I think he has enough power to push the envelope if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. He’s content to keep pulling his punches. To sheathe them in the bubble-wrap of shitty jokes.

And I’m not taking an hour out of my day to watch that. I’d rather go see Jackie Kashian or watch Amy Schumer or Louis CK on HBO.

People with guts. We need them.


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