How Stephen Colbert's RNC/DNC Coverage Underlined an Identity Crisis

'Late Show' host's live shows gave us return of Jon Stewart and 'Stephen Colbert' — and no sense of where he fits into Late-Night TV

Stephen Colbert gets patriotic at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia — and missed the chance to save his show. Credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty

National conventions allow political parties to rally their base, establish their agenda and present their presidential nominee in the best light possible. So it proved oddly fitting that Stephen Colbert chose to do two weeks of live broadcasts timed to the Republican and Democratic conventions. After all, not unlike Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the Late Show host is trying to win over a nation that remains largely uncertain about him.

When CBS announced in April 2014 that Colbert, then riding high with the brilliantly funny The Colbert Report, would replace David Letterman, it seemed like a smart pick for several reasons. But since his Late Show debut in September, Colbert has struggled both in the ratings and with a general perception that he's underwhelming in the new gig. Those troubling optics reached their nadir last month when Howard Stern asked James Corden — whose Late Late Show has become an internet favorite thanks to "Carpool Karaoke" — if he would be taking over Late Show, forcing CBS to deny any such consideration was being discussed. "The implication of that question is that the show isn't good enough in its present position," Colbert said this month about the Corden rumors. "So of course that makes you feel bad. But it doesn't jibe with what I know about our show, so you recover."

So you might say that these last two weeks have been the host's chance to bring some fresh excitement to the campaign and perhaps introduce himself to undecideds. To be sure, these live Late Show episodes were sharper and funnier than usual, capturing Colbert in an energetic and looser mood brought on by a combination of adrenaline and exhaustion. But to borrow some election terminology, the show's lingering problem is that we still don't feel like we know who this guy is.

The missed opportunities were everywhere, starting with the first night of the RNC, in which Colbert kicked off the program with a prerecorded Broadway-style tune lampooning the party's bigwigs called "The RNC Is Like Christmas in July." Boasting plenty of razzmatazz and good cheer, Colbert danced and sang with gusto, but there was no sting to the obvious lyrical barbs. Worst of all, it played like someone's vague idea of how to replicate The Colbert Report's cheeky irreverence, but without the old laser-like focus.

Throughout the fortnight, Colbert leaned heavily on popular Late Show bits, which run the gamut from mediocre to amusing. Since his September debut, he's covered the presidential election largely through the guise of Stanley Tucci's flamboyant Hunger Games character Caesar Flickerman, bitchily mocking the candidates as they fall by the wayside. Both at the RNC and the DNC, Flickerman put in an appearance, riffing on whatever crossed his path. (A highlight of his RNC visit: Flickerman commanding NBC News political director Chuck Todd, "Have Matt Lauer washed and brought to my tent!") 


But as a character, Flickerman is hopelessly one-note — he mostly just delivers wan disses and sneers — and the segments paled in comparison to when Colbert showed up as himself at the RNC's official welcome party to hang out with delegates. He good-naturedly asked attendees if they'd vote for Trump over a resurrected Ronald Reagan, and later he engaged in a game of "Trump or False," in which delegates had to guess whether random outrageous statements were actually made by their candidate. None of this was revolutionary comedy, but it did allow an all-too-rare moment when what seemed like the authentic Colbert emerged.

Jimmy Fallon is the backslapping buddy, Conan O'Brien is the dignified dork, Samantha Bee is the fed-up agitator. Colbert? Eleven months in, his Late Show still feels like a show trying to properly frame the guy at the helm.

"Authentic," of course, is a tricky word to use when describing the comedian. For years, he made his living playing a fake host, but even then we recognized the performer's modesty, graciousness and decency beneath the character's bloviating exterior. But on Late Show, being himself has mostly meant not being anyone discernable. It's not that Colbert doesn't go for the jugular like he did on his old show — it's just that even when his jokes have a bit of bite (such as his drawing of comparisons between Trump and Nazis after the terror attack in Orlando), they tend to be delivered in an all-ages cheeriness that undercuts them.

During the conventions, he poked mild fun at Melania Trump's plagiarism of Michelle Obama. But although Laura Benanti's impression was spot-on, there was no deeper idea, no clever twist of the knife, to make a larger point. This problem was also apparent in an otherwise winning bit Tuesday night in which Late Show tweaked its recurring segment featuring a cartoon Donald Trump by unveiling an animated Hillary Clinton, who was a more lovable version of the calculating career politician that's been portrayed in the media. Colbert happily sat back and let the moment unspool, fully comfortable with allowing his goofy cartoon costar to grab the spotlight.

Unsurprisingly, the live shows' chief headline-grabber was Jon Stewart's appearances during the RNC — as well as the return of the Colbert Report character, who delivered a new installment of "The Word." As fun, and occasionally magnificent, as these moments were, they underlined exactly what has plagued the prgram since the beginning. Stewart's meticulous, righteous evisceration of conservatives' bogus claim to ownership of America and "Colbert's" dissection of Trump's supporters were piercing precisely because they had a clear point of view delivered by people with recognizable, carefully manicured on-air personalities. Even when John Oliver came on to mock Tim Kaine's uncool-stepdad demeanor, he oozed a confidence befitting someone with a precise understanding of his comic sensibility.

Which underlines the identity crisis at hand: Colbert has needed to rely on other people's personalities because he hasn't quite figured out his own yet. Whatever you think of his late-night competition, his biggest rivals are people with distinct styles, giving their audiences a reliable talk-show-host type. Jimmy Fallon is the backslapping buddy, Conan O'Brien is the dignified dork, Samantha Bee is the fed-up agitator. Colbert? Eleven months in, his Late Show still feels like a show trying to properly frame the guy at the helm. The musical-theater side of his personality often gets stranded in dull, play-to-the-cheap-seats routines. (His DNC song, a limp parody of 1960s psychedelic rock, was no better than his RNC ditty.)

And on Wednesday night when he introduced a twin cousin to his Colbert Report character also named Stephen Colbert — a gambit meant to get around the fact that unspecified "corporate lawyers" were barring him from playing the guy who hosted the Comedy Central show — the lackluster bit suggested the callback's diminishing returns. He can't go back to being the old, fake Colbert. So which Colbert can he be? To win, a candidate needs a coherent message. But as Colbert is still learning almost a year into his new job, you have to find your voice first.