The Uncertain Future of Stephen Colbert, the CBS ‘Superman’ Who Bleeds

Published May 7, 2016

Drudge teased this headline for hours last week as “developing,” then finally gave us a link to the New York Times: “CBS rebooting ‘LATE SHOW’ with Colbert…

It’s a show that certainly needs a “reboot,” since “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” has been a ratings failure — unwatchable to at least half the country. Why? Because Colbert is just another in long line of preachy lefty “political entertainers” who sacrifice humor for message.

Here’s something the lefty Hollywood elite just doesn’t get: Right-leaning people do enjoy your content — even though you insult the non-lefty half most of the time. If people on the right didn’t consume your product, you would not have the millions of dollars you’ve earned to pay for the several homes you inhabit. People on the right have the ability to just let it go … but we do have limits.

I have a running joke with a friend of mine about the music and lyrics of R.E.M. My friend asks: “Why do you love this band? They oppose every political position you hold.” I answer:

“It doesn’t matter. We right-wing folks long ago separated the art from the message. We take what we like, and let the rest go. You lefties could take a lesson. Another thing: Great bands that spout leftist stuff don’t just belong to you lefties. It belongs to all who enjoy it, no matter what they think about politics. Besides I know R.E.M.’s ‘World Leader Pretend’ was meant to apply to Reagan — and it supposedly also applied to W — but it better applies to Obama. And ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ is hilarious in retrospect.”

Those are the kind of fun and respectful conversations I have with my lefty friends. Really. I choose wisely, and my lefty friends know me well.

Anyway, we right-wingers who enjoy pop culture know the messages of bands like R.E.M. were intended to move the thinking of their listeners to the left. Let’s just say it didn’t take in my case. In fact, I find listening to all the lefty Cold War “message” pop and rock even more enjoyable nowadays. The artists were wrong, history proved it so, and it provides a good laugh.

Cold War peace was not achieved through Americans finally understanding, as Sting sang, that “Russians love their children, too.” It was achieved through America’s economic strength in the 1980s, and (to summarize victory in one event) Reagan’s ability to “walk away” from the Reykjavik summit with SDI as non-negotiable.

Of course Russians loved their children, but their political system — and the totalitarians in power — were for a long time willing to sacrifice them to defeat freedom … until they realized they could not beat the capitalism that created SDI and made Sting rich. Every political pop and rock artist who “mattered” opposed Reagan and his policies. But Reagan was right, and the singers were wrong — and that fact actually adds to my enjoyment of their work as I listen to it.

Back to Colbert. The only reason I had any respect for him was because of this Christmas production that actually got it about how most Americans celebrate Christmas. It was a surprise that signaled to me that Colbert was not just a garden-variety lefty comedian/satirist, but someone who had a wide breath of experience in the world, and respect for non-left viewpoints. But … I was wrong.

When Colbert started his show, I couldn’t take more than a dozen or so monologues because — with CBS backing him — he revealed himself as just a garden-variety lefty comedian/artist … who also wasn’t all that funny.

I was actually surprised that Colbert chose, on the big CBS stage, to go hard to the left. There was a great opportunity to be the anti-Letterman — not to be a right-wing Letterman, but to be a more biting and funny Jay Leno, a comedian/host who hits as hard and “hip” on both sides. Colbert had his lefty audience watching at his debut. He had right-wing pop-culture fans watching. If he led with his right, and jabbed a lot hard with his left, and then came back with a few haymakers from the right … it would have been good for everyone. But Colbert didn’t choose that path. He chose to continue Letterman’s increasingly creepy leftism with an increasingly awkward unfunniness.

So when word came in mid-April that “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” was bringing on a new show-runner, there was hope (from me, at least) that a new direction would be more even-handed. But … no.

According to the New York Times, the problem with Colbert’s show is that it is not left-wing enough. Les Moonves, head of CBS, “ducked into” a recent taping of Colbert’s show to have a conversation over vodka with the host and its new show-runner and executive producer:

There Mr. Moonves, Mr. Colbert and the show’s new executive producer and showrunner, Chris Licht, broke out a bottle of vodka and toasted their new mission: to get the “Late Show” on track after an uneven first eight months.

It was the first time the three had met since Mr. Moonves persuaded Mr. Colbert to have Mr. Licht join the show two weeks earlier, arguing that Mr. Colbert’s insistence on personally orchestrating details big and small — lighting, script approval, budgets — was diverting his focus from his own performance and that he needed the help.

Well, that reveals a lot. Colbert was micro-managing the show the way Jimmy Carter micro-managed the tennis court schedules at the White House. Nothing good can come from that. And it didn’t.

Media-hound Moonves was a main source of this story, so we continue …

Mr. Moonves says that his visit was a social call on a fledgling show in which he has great faith. “We each had a drink and it was nice,” he told me. “Just three guys.”

But, of course, it was more than that. It was about whether they could pull off one of the most intriguing experiments in late-night television history; whether Mr. Colbert, who became a leading voice in American political satire by playing a fictional character on his Comedy Central show — holding forth before a cable congregation of the converted — could succeed as himself in the big broad tent of network television, whose commercial and corporate imperatives can be homogenizing.

Obviously, that was not going well. Colbert’s “self” was not the same as his cable-buzz shtick, and it was not “homogenizing.” As the NYT story explains, there was a lot riding on “The Late Show”: Moonves’ reputation; Colbert’s reputation for “grace and wicked intelligence,” which was expected to “inject something politically powerful” into the culture; hundreds of millions of CBS dollars. So time for more vodka.

CBS expected Colbert to bring the buzz that they imagined had the kind of “purchase” of the liberal media saint Jon Stewart did on cable. Because, as the NYT says:

[Colbert] shared that reputation with his friend Jon Stewart, who left Comedy Central’s 11 p.m. “Daily Show” several months after Mr. Colbert left his 11:30 p.m. program, “The Colbert Report.” In their absence there has been a “Where is Superman?” aspect to this year’s presidential campaign, especially in Left America, Centrist-Left America and, yes, Media America.

“Where is Superman?” Where is the hip, liberal pop-cultural champion who would promote the message on a “real” network? That is the question, and the answer is why Colbert, CBS and his show is in crisis.

Moonves and the rest of the CBS suits had such faith in their cultural dominance that they thought what they enjoyed — leftist comedy on cable — was obviously up-scaleable. So why not let Colbert control everything from the lighting to budgets to script approval. It will be Comedy Central, but done right — influencing the next election on a much larger scale.

But, no. Here’s the flaw in the thinking: They only want their “Superman” to be a host who appeals to “Left America, Centrist-Left America and, yes, Media America.”

That’s the ticket! Eliminate any appeal at all to half the country. Ratings gold.

CBS is learning why Jon Stewart (and Colbert) was a “ratings smash” on cable. They saw it with Comedy Central host Larry Wilmore’s bomb at the White House Correspondence Dinner Saturday. It’s the difference between appealing to a broad audience, and thinking inside the bubble. It leads to failure.

We non-left consumers of pop culture notice when your Superman bleeds.

[First published at Ricochet.]