‘Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ is this generation’s ‘Meet the Press’

‘Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ is this generation’s ‘Meet the Press’
© Late Show

One month into his gig as host of CBS’s “The Late Show,” Stephen Colbert has shown he’s a different kind of late-night personality — and Washington is taking notice.

Colbert is taking late-night television by storm by making politics a central part of his show.

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“He has better political guests than celebrity guests,” said one admirer, a former producer on one of Washington’s Sunday morning shows. “He genuinely knows what he’s talking about.”

While rivals Jimmy Kimmel on ABC and Jimmy Fallon on NBC also frequently book political guests, Colbert’s backstory includes nine years at “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central. He’s got the chops to go one-on-one with his celebrity political guests and is seen as the television host best positioned to take Jon Stewart’s crown as the king of politics and comedy.

“He’s a very smart person and a very thoughtful interviewer,” said Betsy Fischer Martin, who was executive producer at NBC’s “Meet the Press” for 11 years.

She recalled Tim Russert’s 2007 interview with Colbert, where the comic held his own with the legendary “Meet the Press” host — first in character as the faux conservative host he’s most known for and then as himself.

“He’s very steeped in politics. You could tell he loved it,” said Fischer Martin, now an executive in residence at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

Colbert’s debut on CBS included an interview with presidential candidate Jeb Bush, whom Colbert convinced to mimic Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE, the front-runner for the GOP nomination.

Later that week he had arguably his most memorable moment so far: a one-on-one interview with Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates Biden pitches new subsidies, public option in health care plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke MORE in which the vice president talked movingly about the difficult decision he faces on entering the White House race months after the loss of his son, Beau Biden.

It was a late-night interview that made news and is one of just two sit-downs Biden has given as he decides whether to throw his hat in the ring for the 2016 election. Cable news networks repeatedly aired segments of the interview the next day, and the Sunday morning shows were still talking about it half a week later.

“You could tell there was a connection there,” said Fischer Martin. “He got a personal reaction from the vice president, and not one you’d see on a Sunday show.”

Other guests during Colbert’s first month included first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama calls on teachers to help students register to vote The Obamas' silence on Joe Biden is deafening  Michelle Obama pays tribute to late Disney star Cameron Boyce MORE, presidential hopefuls Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP senators ask for federal investigation into social media companies' decision-making The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Ted Cruz blasts Tennessee GOP governor for declaration honoring early KKK leader MORE (R-Texas) and Trump and Energy Secretary Ernest MonizErnest Jeffrey MonizBiden under pressure from environmentalists on climate plan Pelosi, Clinton among attendees at memorial reception for Ellen Tauscher 2020 is the Democrats' to lose — and they very well may MORE.

There’s nothing new about politicians appearing on late-night television.

Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMarching toward a debt crisis The tragic cycle of genocide denial has returned: This time, Nigeria John Lithgow releases poem on the downfall of Acosta MORE made a splash in 1992 with an appearance on Arsenio Hall’s show in which he played the saxophone. It portrayed a youthful, hip candidate at a time when Clinton was seeking to overtake the more stolid President George H.W. Bush. President Obama has been a regular on all the late-night shows, from David Letterman and Jay Leno to Fallon and Kimmel.

Several people in the television world who spoke to The Hill about Colbert, however, described his new show as something special.

“What he’s shown so far is it’s not the same situation as the old show,” one
producer said.

Back when he was on Comedy Central, Colbert didn’t always have the best reputation in Washington.

In 2006, he roasted then-President George W. Bush and the media that covered his administration at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner. The in-character performance criticized Bush’s handling of the Iraq War and implicated the news media in failing to serve as a watchdog.

For some, the criticism was too much.

Colbert’s regular “Better Know a District” segments on Comedy Central, in which he sought to profile every one of the 435 members of Congress, was notorious.

In one, he asked Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who wanted the Ten Commandments to be posted in both chambers of Congress, to name them. “I can’t name them all,” Westmoreland said after getting through “Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t lie.”

In another, then-Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) was convinced by Colbert to say, “I enjoy cocaine because it’s a fun thing to do.” The host had jokingly prodded Wexler to say something that would make him lose reelection.

The interviews led then-House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to advise Democrats not to appear on Colbert’s show.

“Don’t subject yourself to a comic’s edit unless you want to be made a fool of,” Pelosi said at a 2006 news conference.

Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign was “eyes wide-open” about Colbert’s “liberal bent,” said spokesman Tim Miller, “but the opportunity to do his first show and show Jeb in a non-political environment overwhelmed the risks in our mind.”

The campaign ended up being happy with the appearance, and much of the segment was repeatedly shown on cable television, giving the former Florida governor valuable media time.

Observers say they’d be wary of advising other candidates to go on Colbert’s show, given his reputation and ability for verbal combat.

“I’d be far more scared of him if I was a politician,” the former Sunday show producer said.

But appearing on the program is an enticing opportunity, particularly for guests who can score points by going head-to-head with television’s new political
power.

So far, Colbert’s gamble on a more political show is paying off.

Fallon is the late-night leader, but Colbert’s numbers are growing.

His ratings are up among young viewers, and the average age of a “Late Show” viewer has fallen from when Letterman hosted the show.