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One Good Thing: Stephen Colbert is looser, funnier, and angrier in quarantine

Only Colbert can work through a “Your internet connection is unstable” warning popping up during a Zoom interview.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

One of my favorite micro-moments in 21st-century TV history was what happened to late-night shows during the 2007–08 writers strike. The hosts of late-night talk shows — including The Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert, among others — were forbidden from working with their writing staffs, since the Writers Guild of America had declared a work stoppage. But the shows had to go on. What was a late-night host to do?

The episodes they ended up making were loopy and gloriously silly, long on comedic bits that often had no real structure to them, yet were buoyed by the hosts’ willingness to just do whatever for a laugh. By far my favorite series of programs from this period involved an ongoing “feud” between Colbert and Conan O’Brien over which of them had been more instrumental in the then-surprising rise of Mike Huckabee (who briefly seemed to be the frontrunner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination). The squabble eventually devolved into a barely choreographed slapstick fight where Colbert, O’Brien, and Jon Stewart seemed to be locked in a battle for the ages.

That sort of loose and goofy energy is too rare in modern late-night, where everything is tightly scripted and every interview is a promotional opportunity. (I miss, daily, Craig Ferguson, whose CBS show ended in 2014, because he was the best conversationalist on television.) But the Covid-19 pandemic has forced at least some of that spirit back into late-night programs, and it’s been fascinating to see who’s been most revitalized by it.

I’ve been tickled by what both Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah have done with their quarantine-era programs, but the biggest surprise to me has been just how entertaining Stephen Colbert has been on CBS’s Late Show. I bear no particular ill-will toward Colbert’s Late Show — I prefer it to Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show on NBC and Jimmy Kimmel’s Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC, both of which air opposite Colbert in the same time slot — but it’s always felt a step down to me from the satirical stuff he was doing for all those years on The Colbert Report.

In quarantine, though, his show has become something to see most nights, even when it’s not particularly funny. If a joke doesn’t land, it almost doesn’t matter because what’s most impressive about Colbert in quarantine is the spirit of the thing.

Like many hosts, in the early stages of the pandemic, Colbert was doing his show from his home. It was fine, as these things go, but more than any other host in late-night, Colbert thrives when he has a crowd to perform to. So when he was working from home, the program could come off as a little stilted and uneven.

But in early August, Late Show — now dubbed A Late Show instead of The Late Show, to reflect the sheer weirdness of the whole scenario — returned to its home base above the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. Colbert is back filming on a facsimile of his real set, though not in his usual studio, and he’s performing for an audience that includes his most trusted producers and his family. There are whole shows where nothing works. But nobody on television is better at fumbling his way through an awkward situation than Stephen Colbert.

What I like about these episodes is the way they capture the stir-crazy energy of living in quarantine after all these months. Colbert is trapped in the same building with the same small handful of people every day, and the challenge is to keep making them laugh. Without a studio audience to entertain, he’s got to entertain some of his closest friends and family — a.k.a. the people who are most sick of him at this point — and when a joke bombs, they’re only too happy to sit in stony silence.

Colbert has risen to this challenge. He’s a pro at rolling with the punches, meaning that when an interview with a celebrity conducted over Zoom is plagued by connection problems or drifts away from whatever the topic was supposed to be, he’s magnificent at just coasting along. And during two full weeks of live shows during August’s political conventions, he turned what could have been a nightmare scenario — doing a live show from an office building with a skeleton crew — into some of the most fascinating television he’s made since joining CBS in 2015.

In particular, I’m fascinated by how Colbert has become a lot more willing to alienate whatever Trump fans are part of his audience, often by directly implicating the president in the deaths of nearly 200,000 people in the wake of Covid-19’s spread throughout the US. Yes, he’s doing the same “unusual headline of the day” jokes as everybody else, but he’s also much more willing to get suddenly, viscerally angry, and when he does, the show crackles.

The monologue from the evening of Wednesday, August 26, embedded at the top of this article, was one of his best ever, weaving just enough jokes into a story of Trump’s America that made very clear just how little Trump cares for anyone who isn’t himself. Many of the jokes were dad-level corny, but they were delivered with real sincerity and gusto, undergirding Colbert’s central point: Somebody’s gotta fucking do something already.

Colbert is far from a political revolutionary. His sense of humor is full of center-left platitudes, and he’s more likely to make fun of Trump’s buffoonery than actually dig into what’s horrifying about the president or the country that elected him.

But his recent shows have come as close to arguing that America needs seismic change as television ever allows. Stephen Colbert probably won’t change anyone’s mind, but if any host on TV is going to say with a smile that he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take this anymore, it’s him.