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Stephen Colbert's Late Show has something other late-night shows don't: a rich humanity

How the host shows off his guests' human sides, in 15 of his most compelling interviews.

It’s still early — with 40 episodes and counting — but so far The Late Show With Stephen Colbert has lived up to at least some of its initial promise of mixing up the late-night scene.

Gone is the wacky, ultra-conservative persona of The Colbert Report, who graced Comedy Central for 10 seasons. In its stead, we have the "real" Stephen Colbert, something that’s been a rare commodity in years past. And Colbert is aware of the fact that the public and the media are not entirely attuned to what he’s like outside of The Colbert Report's conservative caricature.

What we’ve seen on the new Late Show so far is an animated host who falls somewhere between a zany, sitcom-style dad and an intuitive interviewer who isn’t afraid to steer the conversation into more serious, straightforward, and sincere territory when the opportunity presents itself.

However, what’s really helped the Late Show stand apart from its crowded competition is a consistent mix of distinctive guests, several of whom have never appeared on late-night television before.

Even more impressive is the diversity of guests Colbert’s team has selected. In the span of a week, viewers can expect to see sit-downs with the likes of Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. No other current late-night show boasts such a varied lineup.

With Colbert at the helm, Late Show hopes to convey a seamless combination of satire and intellectualism, attributes that made The Colbert Report so successful for so long. Colbert's natural charisma might draw the raucous chants of "Stephen, Stephen, Stephen" every night from the audience. But his legacy will rest on the rich humanity he brings to his wide variety of guests.

Let's look at how he tailors his approach for every new person who sits on his couch, via 15 very different guests.


1) Politicians

Politicians typically appear on late-night shows to seem comfortable and relatable, someone you can picture sitting down and having a beer with.

Therefore, the expectation is that they’ll talk a bit about themselves and their campaign, should they happen to be running for office. Perhaps at the end of the show, they’ll participate in some type of game with the host. It’s very PR-friendly.

Colbert interviewed his fair share of politicians on The Colbert Report, but rather than the standard softball late-night interview, he parodied opinionated, personality-driven political shows. He's kept up the energy with his Late Show interviews, but now he's steering the conversation toward the candidates’ policies and viewpoints.

1

Sen. Ted Cruz talks Ronald Reagan

Take his interview with GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz. It didn’t take long after introducing Cruz and exchanging pleasantries with him — including calling Cruz a "smarty pants" for his degrees from Princeton and Harvard — for Colbert to grill the candidate on his stance on same-sex marriage and Republican idolization of Ronald Reagan.

Colbert made it a point to remind Cruz that Reagan wouldn't easily fit the conservative mold that Cruz and many current Republicans have conformed to. "Raising taxes and amnesty for illegal immigrants. Could you agree with Reagan on those two things?" Colbert asked Cruz.

"No, of course not," Cruz begrudgingly admitted, before pointing out that Reagan had also imposed the largest tax cut in US history.

The conversation quickly shifted to the senator’s stance on same-sex marriage, and as Cruz began to explain his belief that same-sex marriage should be decided on a state level, he was met with boos from the studio audience. Colbert, in response, asked the audience to stop booing his guest, regardless of their personal opinions on the matter.

The exchange perfectly captured the civil tone Colbert strives for on his show. Even in the midst of disagreements, Colbert maintained a high level of respect toward Cruz. It’s a formula he followed in subsequent interviews with John Kerry, John McCain, and Elizabeth Warren.

2

Presidential candidate Donald Trump plays a guessing game

The exception, however, was Donald Trump (who has a propensity to make an impression with everything he does).

Trump’s interview with Colbert was highly anticipated, especially given how frequently Trump is used as a gag on The Late Show, with regard to both serious topics, like his views on immigration, and much less serious ones, like his highly questionable hair.

Yet Colbert’s handling of the Trump interview boiled down to his personal attitude toward the would-be politician. It’s clear Colbert doesn’t view Trump as a serious candidate. He didn’t hide his skepticism during the interview, going so far as to thank Trump for running for president for the sheer entertainment value. But he also probed Trump to discuss his platform and previous insinuations that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States. (Trump not-so-subtly deflected that question.)

The result was an interview stuck in an awkward middle ground between a heated discussion and an exchange of comedic jabs and one-liners. Colbert even resorted to a Jimmy Fallon–esque game at the end, where Trump had to guess whether a statement had been made by Colbert’s conservative persona or Trump himself.

Trump was very good at guessing.

3

Vice President Joe Biden goes nakedly emotional

But where the Trump interview lacked direction from the get-go, Colbert’s interview with Vice President Joe Biden set the tone early: nakedly emotional.

The question on many viewers' minds was whether Biden would announce a run for president. (He later opted not to run.) However, by the end of the 20-minute interview — much longer than any on The Late Show thus far — politics took a back seat to the personal turmoil experienced by both men.

The discussion turned to Biden’s recent loss of his son Beau to brain cancer. Sadly, that wasn’t Biden’s first brush with family tragedy, as he lost his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car accident. Two years later, Colbert lost two of his brothers and his father in a plane crash, when the host was just 10.

"What inspires me, sir, about your response and your life and your service to the country and what you instilled in your children is that you have suffered, and yet through your suffering you seem to have made some beautiful things in your life. You’ve dedicated yourself to other people and helping them," Colbert said. Biden's responses did more than create headlines — they revealed the human side of one of the country's most prominent figures.

It’s rare to see such vulnerability on display in front of such a large audience, let alone a private, intimate conversation. It’s even more rare when that vulnerability comes from a politician — even the famously sincere Biden. It’s difficult to predict how much of this conversation went off-script, but Colbert handled it with grace.

Most importantly, it encapsulated the humanity-driven approach Colbert is aiming for with his guests, and revealed Colbert’s deft mastery of the personal interview.


2) Entrepreneurs

Politicians are a late-night staple, especially with an election just around the corner, but entrepreneurs are seen much less frequently. Yet Colbert has made a conscious effort to make them a regular part of the Late Show rotation. He’s mixed well-known figures such as Elon Musk with breakout tech luminaries from ever-growing companies like Snapchat and Airbnb.

4

Apple CEO Tim Cook discusses coming out as gay

As with all late-night interviews, the goal of these talks is ultimately promotion, for a product or the company itself. Thus, Apple CEO Tim Cook’s sit-down (his first late-night visit) was timely; he was there to push the iPhone 6S. But Colbert made an effort to make the discussion more than just an iPhone showcase. He was able to touch on Cook’s personal feelings toward films focused on the late Steve Jobs and, more importantly, Cook’s decision to come out as gay last year.

Cook said his coming out was, above all else, a demonstration of support for the countless men and women who experience discrimination regarding their sexual orientation. It was a side of the soft-spoken CEO that’s not regularly seen by the general public — much like the "real" Stephen Colbert — which made it that much more impactful.

5

GoPro CEO Nick Woodman proved too wooden for even Colbert

By contrast, GoPro CEO Nick Woodman’s appearance on the Late Show was all flash and no substance. By now everyone is attuned to what makes GoPro cameras special — yes, you can strap a GoPro to practically anything, we get it — but all Colbert could get out of Woodman the person was that he likes to surf, and that’s what inspired him to start the company. Also, he’s a billionaire. Hats off to him.

Colbert’s attempt to compensate for Woodman’s wooden personality — mounting a GoPro on his own forehead and another on the torso of bandleader Jon Batiste — was admirable but ultimately unenlightening. A substantive talk simply can’t be one-sided, and Woodman’s interview demonstrates why some figures — even with Colbert at the helm — can’t be humanized.


3) Social activists

There’s a tendency to view social activists as symbols for a particular movement, and rightfully so. Because of this, it’s easy to forget that the most well-known activists are first and foremost human beings. And that's what Colbert wants to remind his viewers of. These activists are more than their causes, just as politicians are more than their platforms and entrepreneurs more than their products.

6

Malala Yousafzai does a magic trick

That isn’t to say Colbert didn’t have a substantive conversation with Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Far from it. She shared how she spent her 18th birthday: opening a school in Lebanon. She emphasized that change begins on the individual level, not by sitting back and waiting for world leaders to assist with creating a movement or launching a cause.

But then, it was time for something completely different: a card trick. She asked Colbert to pick a card and show it to the audience. After some shuffling, she quipped that she could read his mind and asked that he place one card in each hand. What happened next revealed a new side of both participants in the trick.

Malala Yousafzai. Social activist, survivor of gunshot wounds, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and magician.

7

Global Poverty Project co-founder Hugh Evans gets some celebrity help

Sometimes it can be hard to recognize an individual behind a movement, especially when the movement itself is so much bigger than said individual. In fact, at the Australia 2020 Summit in 2008, Hugh Jackman initially thought Global Poverty Project co-founder Hugh Evans was a waiter, and asked for a gin and tonic.

It was a humbling moment for Jackman but an important one for Evans and his organization. They needed a prominent figure to help promote their cause, and that more than describes the charismatic Jackman.

To Colbert’s credit, he used that appeal smartly on the Late Show. It’s one thing to simply interview Evans, but when you throw in Jackman as well, it’ll inherently make more people pay attention.


4) Digital media mavericks

8

PewDiePie goes a little shy

You would think that a man who makes millions of dollars a year belting out profanity-laced verbal tirades for nearly 40 million YouTube subscribers would bring a jolt of energy to The Late Show. However, PewDiePie’s reserved in-person nature — which has been well-documented — was evident throughout his talk with Colbert.

The PewDiePie interview was ostensibly centered on the phenomenon of Let’s Play videos — which feature gamers documenting a play-through of a game — in an attempt to paint a picture of why they became so popular. (In the words of PewDiePie, it’s like sitting on a couch with a friend and watching them play.)

But this was accomplished at the expense of learning very little about "Pewds." Aside from asking his guest whether he watches television and what his hobbies are — basic, surface-level questions — Colbert spent more time delving into PewDiePie’s YouTube fandom, which included playing a quick montage of his clips.

If the interview is viewed as an in-depth look at the Let’s Play following, it can be deemed a success. But those hoping to learn more about PewDiePie the person are sure to be disappointed. After all — much like Colbert — it’s rare to see PewDiePie drop the act and be himself.

At least we got to learn some Swedish curse words.

9

The Welcome to Night Vale guys can't bring an air of mystery to late night

Colbert faced that same dilemma when he sat down with the minds behind the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.

Trying to explain Night Vale to the uninitiated is difficult. (In brief, it presents a fictional small town, somehow at the nexus of all things supernatural, through the lens of an NPR-style community newscast.) Therefore, Colbert was met with a quandary. He had Fink and Cranor — also promoting an upcoming Night Vale book — and little airtime to spend talking to the duo about themselves, the podcast, and the book.

So Colbert chose to show rather than tell. He offered a taste of Night Vale’s unsettling, eclectic tone, pulling out an old-timey radio as the podcast's narrator Cecil Baldwin provided a look at the town’s latest community calendar.

This worked better in concept than in execution, as Night Vale slowly builds to uneasiness through its 25- to 30-minute episodes; it just can’t be replicated in 90 seconds. Nevertheless, the effort demonstrated Colbert’s keen interest in the podcast medium, and the segment was a respectable — albeit short — introduction to the internet’s favorite small desert town.

Colbert has, in the process of expanding The Late Show's guest roster to include online sensations like PewDiePie and the Night Vale creators, become a pioneer by embracing internet celebrities at a more rapid pace than his late-night counterparts. His struggles with these encounters can be attributed to a lack of exposure. After all, he’s not new to interviewing important figures; he did it throughout his tenure on The Colbert Report.

It’s entirely possible, and likely, that he’ll improve over time. However, a large part of that will come down to how much of his interview time is dedicated to explaining who his guests are as people, rather than simply why they are on The Late Show.


5) Academics

10-11

Ben Bernanke and Ernest Moniz discuss their areas of expertise


It’s unfair to definitively judge Colbert’s interviews with scholarly minds, given how few he's had on the show so far. What we have seen, though, are informative talks that aren’t dumbed down — or particularly funny.

That’s not meant to be disparaging, or suggest the conversations won’t invoke a chuckle or two. But ultimately, economic Ben Bernanke and Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz are synonymous with two very important American issues — the Great Recession and the Iran Deal, respectively. Americans should know who they are, though many don’t. Colbert is aiming to change that more than he is aiming to entertain.

And just by inviting them to The Late Show, he begins the dialogue.


6) Celebrities

Meaningful conversations with celebrities are a rarity in the late-night scene. Again, most interviews pander to people’s baser instincts — and promoting new projects — rather than anything substantive.

12

George Clooney promotes a fake film

Colbert is so cognizant of this fact that his first guest on The Late Show, George Clooney, had absolutely nothing to promote. Instead, the actor and Colbert plugged a nonexistent film where Clooney played a rugged secretary general of the UN trying to save the world. It was a clever and cheeky clip, but the best part of their chat was cut from the final episode and subsequently posted to YouTube the next day.

In the extended clip, they discuss how Clooney’s work as an actor compares with that of his wife Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer. Similar to his interview with Jackman and Evans, Colbert places an emphasis on Clooney’s wife, whose work is often overshadowed by her husband’s.

But this is not intended as a slight to Clooney, and it doesn’t come off that way; indeed, it’s also an opportunity to praise Clooney, who’s used his celebrity to raise awareness of the atrocities happening in Darfur. Colbert asks Clooney whether it’s difficult to be the object of attention that draws awareness toward such tragedy. Clooney says he doesn’t mind, as the media will naturally shine the spotlight on him, and the least he can do is use the opportunity to highlight a legitimate issue.

Ironically, The Late Show was guilty of the same overshadowing Colbert and Clooney discussed in deciding to cut this portion of the interview from the broadcast to make space for fake film promotion. For that reason, the interview succeeds, and conversely, the editing process fails.

13

Oprah Winfrey talks about her faith

Clooney’s interview was an exception to the rule, however. Promotion is still the focal point of most celebrity interviews on The Late Show. But some of them, like Colbert’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, succeed in finding an interesting middle ground.

Winfrey’s conversation with Colbert was deep and spiritual, centering on faith and belief. This was due to her upcoming miniseries, appropriately titled Belief, which will explore the present-day impacts of long-held religious faiths from across the world. As she spoke about her childhood and propensity to preach, Colbert shifted the conversation toward favorite Bible verses. From there, he used the title of the series to allow Winfrey to explain the differences between faith and belief.

If you think this sounds like something out of a TED talk, you’re not wrong. Late-night television and religion rarely go hand in hand. But Colbert is a man of deep faith. If The Late Show is truly going to mix up late night, it can’t be afraid to cater to the strengths of its host. For Colbert, one of his greatest strengths is his sincerity, which in turn allows him to show his own humanity. In this case, it was his piety on display. And it’s clear that when presented with a guest of passionate faith, Colbert isn’t afraid to get theological.


7) Unusual entertainers

Most late-night shows regularly feature a musical performance. Colbert has followed that tradition to an extent, but even in the standard musical guest mold, the performers have been adventurous. He’s hosted the likes of Atlanta-based artist Raury (who used his time to express disdain for Donald Trump by wearing a Mexican soccer jersey with the GOP candidate’s name crossed out) and John Legend (duetting "America the Beautiful" with Colbert).

But the host has also brought in entertainers who don’t fit the traditional musical performance mold.

14

Video game designer Sean Murray shows off new worlds

These include, of all things, video game developer Sean Murray sharing footage, played in real time, from an upcoming game. An open-world (or really, open-universe) game if there ever was one, No Man’s Sky is an unimaginably expansive, and Murray took Colbert on a whirlwind tour, showing him new worlds and even naming animals and a planet after the gracious host.

15

Dancer Misty Copeland and cellist Yo-Yo Ma bring down the house

Colbert has also introduced classical ballet to The Late Show, via American Ballet Theater's first black principal ballerina, Misty Copeland, performing with legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The performance was hypnotic, in the best way possible. Colbert searches for originality and authenticity not only through his interviews but also with the entertainers who more often than not conclude the show. It creates a subtle effect of consistency with each episode, all wrapped in the same humane convention.


The Late Show’s unique mix of guests is what makes it so satisfying

Late-night television is populated by many versatile hosts. But what sets The Late Show apart in the late-night landscape is its celebration of the influential, not just the famous.

Credit for that doesn’t go solely to Colbert; the behind-the-scenes work of The Late Show’s co-executive producer, Emily Lazar, is imperative to its tone. The pair's collaboration has allowed Colbert to carve out a distinctive niche for himself and his show over a remarkably short period of time.

But it’s Colbert’s focus on gentle humanism that connects these disparate guests and interview approaches. Whether he’s talking to someone about faith, morality, ethics, or Swedish curse words, Colbert the interviewer always attempts to go deeper than the standard late-night talking points. And more often than not, through that focus on his guests' humanity, he accomplishes conversations of substance as well as comedy.


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