Why Stephen Colbert Played It Straight with Donald Trump
Policy + Politics

Why Stephen Colbert Played It Straight with Donald Trump

John Paul Filo

Last summer, when it was announced that Stephen Colbert would replace David Letterman as host of “The Late Show,” there was some chin scratching about exactly how political the new iteration of Colbert could be. While Jon Stewart always appeared to be playing some version of himself on camera, Colbert was famously a parody of the O’Reilly/Hannity/Beck ego-driven talking head show that Fox made an art form in the early 2000s. The question was, who exactly had CBS hired to replace the venerable Letterman?

Now, in the third week of his run, and following his most high-profile guest to date -- presidential candidate and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump -- the question still remains: Who exactly has CBS hired to host its late night institution?

In the buildup to his first episode, Colbert, in an effort to assuage nervous CBS execs that he would alienate apolitical or right-leaning viewers, issued statements about the ways in which he himself was different from his famous character. He highlighted his serious Catholic faith and the ways that his own views were probably more to the right of Jon Stewart than perhaps some of his fans suspected.

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The early episodes showed a real effort to introduce this kinder, gentler Colbert. The archness was dialed down and the South Carolina accent allowed to peek out. His house band, more playful than hip, allowed Colbert to do his Ellen-esque dancing and highlight his impish charm.

In his first two interviews, with George Clooney and Jeb Bush, Colbert was somewhat subdued despite the political relevance of both men. Jeb was encouraged to do his Donald Trump impression, but that segment was tellingly shown only on the show’s website, not on TV. And given his treatment by the GOP establishment, there is something nonpartisan about mocking Trump. Colbert seemed to be trying to mock the ridiculousness, but without the overt commentary.

But just like Michael Corleone, every time he thinks he’s out … they pull him back in.

The news didn’t help. After a summer in which pop cultural news has been particularly inert, the odd WWE-style Twitter fight aside, there hasn’t been much to talk about. “Jurassic World” tore up the box office, but there was little to say about it other than “Cool, dinosaurs!” And there are only so many Jon Snow jokes you can make.

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The one thing that has dominated the news this summer, both the political and the popular, has been the 2016 presidential race and particularly the Donald Trump sideshow. Last week’s GOP debate was a target too rich and too prevalent in the cultural conversation to ignore. You could almost watch the internal debate behind Colbert’s glasses as he virtually announced, “I’m about to get political.” The question is how far he could push it.

His interviews with both Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz were reminiscent of the Colbert of old. He engaged Sanders with a reminder that the American dream is about hard work being rewarded, and exceptional work being exceptionally rewarded. Though always civil with Ted Cruz, he challenged him in his treatment of non-Christian Americans and his opposition to gay marriage. His “Hunger Games”-inspired segment, rolled out to eulogize the ends of both the Perry and Walker campaigns, has been one of the highlights of the young show. He may have dialed down attempts at “gotcha” moments, but this was the wily and thoughtful debater his fans remembered.

So where was that guy with Trump? Colbert’s interview with Trump was almost certainly a victim of unreasonable expectations. Fans hoped to see a battle between a man long experienced at skewering loudmouthed bullies and one of history’s greatest wind tunnels. Instead, the interview felt like two wary and slightly tired boxers circling one another without ever engaging. Colbert, perhaps sensing that Trump would never engage him in an honest debate, seemed to be trying to get Trump to be outrageous.

Trump for his part, knowing that he was simultaneously home in New York and in front of the least friendly audience he’d seen in months, was calm and polite. He refused to take the bait on Colbert’s two attempts to engage him on his hot button issue of immigration (and his controversial statements about Mexicans) and his refusal to disavow some of the more outré theories about Obama’s origins.

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Whether it was due to pressure from CBS or an honest belief that there was no point scrapping with Trump, the prizefight never happened. It is somewhat odd that he would have real ideological and policy-based discussions with Ted Cruz but not Trump. After all, one of those people has a remote chance of becoming president, and it’s not the one who engaged Colbert in a thoughtful debate.

Like some sort of Incredible Hulk, Colbert seems to be keeping his wilder alter ego in check. Considering the modern television landscape, CBS could do worse than latching onto Colbert’s old audience, even at the risk of politically alienating some viewers (and Letterman wasn’t totally apolitical, particularly after 9/11). Perhaps it’s time for Colbert to stop pretending to be Dr. Jekyll and let Mr. Hyde run the show?