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Make America Colbert Again

Amid an insane convention season, can the host of ‘The Late Show’ rediscover his truthiness?

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Getty Images

Donald Trump has spent the week trying to convince the American public he’s fit to lead. In covering Donald Trump, Stephen Colbert is sending a similar message: I’ve got this.

Colbert’s incarnation of The Late Show has hardly specialized in the sort of bite-size segments whose digital afterlife increasingly stands in for late night’s cultural currency. In fact, it’s almost developed an identity in opposition to them, announcing itself in September with a heartfelt, two-part Joe Biden interview about grief and governance. The subtext seemed obvious: Keep your lip-syncs. This one is for the grown-ups.

And while it may have been wise not to try to beat America’s Frat Brother at his own game, Colbert’s relative maturity came at a price. Not only does The Late Show have consistently fewer viewers than Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show; it has less favorable buzz than its own follow-up, James Corden’s Late Late Show. Over the past year, Corden’s hosted a record-breaking Tonys, produced exactly the kind of bankable spinoff franchise that demonstrates why playing directly into the viral economy pays, and most cringingly, his show earned an Emmy nomination where its lead-in didn’t. It’s snowballed into a comparison so direct, and so unflattering to Colbert, that Howard Stern asked Corden if he’d take Colbert’s slot if it were offered to him. Corden saying no wasn’t nearly as important as Stern asking the question at all. If it hadn’t occurred to listeners to frame Colbert’s Late Show in such stark and damning terms before, it certainly had now. Grace period officially over.

This week has been an obvious, and successful, attempt to change that. Since Monday, The Late Show has been broadcasting live from the Ed Sullivan Theater, the better to respond to the chaos in Cleveland as it unfolds. (Mere hours after Ted Cruz took a bow after his defiant non-endorsement, Colbert was able to crack that “revenge is a dish best served con queso” in his monologue). Rebranding, if temporarily, as “2016 Trumpublican Donational Conventrump Starring Donald Trump as the Republican Party* (*May Contain Traces of Republican),” Colbert has gone all in on the political circus, airing pretaped segments recorded in and around Quicken Loans Arena between monologues and even guest appearances focused on the election. Next week, they’ll repeat the stunt all over again, this time as “The 2016 Democratic National Convincing, a Technically Historic Event: Death. Taxes. Hillary.”

The result has been a series of wins, both narrative and tangible. First and foremost, Colbert played his He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named card: the return of his Colbert Report character, a one-time-only nuclear option played for maximum impact by pairing it with a cameo from bearded mountain man Jon Stewart. After the Report’s December 2014 finale, “Stephen Colbert” had been put on indefinite ice, partly because his creator was vocally tired of him and partly because the real Colbert needed time to craft an identity of his own. Apparently, that time clocked out at around the year and a half mark.

It’s a great segment, spotlighting both the natural rapport between the longtime friends and a sorely missed perspective on the right-wing delusion “Stephen Colbert” both parodied and predicted. More importantly, it pole-vaulted The Late Show ahead in the ratings. And then there was Melania, another mixed blessing from whatever trickster god handed Trump this nomination. Colbert immediately took advantage, casting Laura Benanti in a vicious takedown that also happens to have more than 5.6 million YouTube hits.

Finally, there’s The Cover. Like everything else about this week in Colbert, The Hollywood Reporter’s profile of a show in semi-distress is precision-timed. It’s clearly designed to head off rumors by confronting them head-on: CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller goes on the record in calling the show “uneven” … even as he’s affirming the network’s commitment to the host, going so far as to call out the Corden rumors by name. Everyone from Colbert himself to his new, Leslie Moonves–mandated showrunner joins in on the transparency free-for-all. The logic is clear. When generic denials don’t work, and they never do, the best way to magic a PR problem away is to acknowledge it.

Yet there’s an equally apparent reason the cover is dropping this week — not after the upfronts, when it was Corden who got drafted for CBS’s obligatory Hamilton parody. Not next month. Now. Both Colbert and CBS seem to know that the convention coverage is The Late Show’s secret weapon. It’s no coincidence the story opens with reporter Marisa Guthrie observing the Stewart taping. Even before the ratings came in, the network was hopeful the convention coverage would go well enough to serve as the story’s grace note, a signal that Colbert’s rough patch had finally come to an end.

The question remains: Has it? It’s undeniable that this has been a banner week for the show, particularly as much of late night has remained so stubbornly apolitical. Fallon busted out his Trump impression for a mere three minutes; Corden got credit for a vaguely shady lyric in Michelle Obama’s “Carpool Karaoke,” even though those of us who studiously track FLOTUS’ Snapchat know the segment was recorded weeks ago. Against this increasingly, almost irresponsibly bland backdrop, Colbert has leaned directly into the political humor that landed him on the map in the first place, even before the conventions. “Stephen Colbert” may have been a literal return to form, but Colbert himself is enjoying a more figurative one.

But after the conventions — and assuming America survives it, after the election — the challenges that put The Late Show on the defensive remain. They’re even present in the convention coverage itself. Colbert has never been especially willing to put up with, let alone play into, the perfunctory press tour stops that are late night’s bread and butter, particularly compared with Fallon’s revolving-door funhouse of gimmicky party games. And he still isn’t, despite having to do more of them as he’s pivoted away from the scientists, authors, and tech luminaries who populated his early guest roster. Just look at the contrast between two recent Star Trek promotions: In one, Fallon gets Idris Elba to cover Desiigner’s “Panda” in a silly voice; in the other, Colbert awkwardly tries to keep Zoe Saldana on theme by asking her about politics, before giving in to the inevitable anecdotes about her kids.

That obligation isn’t going away anytime soon, and neither is Fallon’s dominance. I’m rooting for Colbert; at his best, I think he’s both sharper and more humane than his competitors. But I’m also aware that the conventions and the ensuing sprint to the finish almost uniquely play to his strengths, as both a political satirist and a deeply empathetic entertainer. It’s a great sign that Colbert is now openly embracing part of his comedy that he seemed prepared to leave behind as he crossed the great cable-network divide. It remains to be seen whether he can hold onto it in the face of challenges both external (a Clinton convention won’t offer the same embarrassment of riches as a Trump one) and internal (keeping up a hot streak is hard!). The Late Show is still a delicate balancing act, even if Colbert has figured out how to tilt that balance in his favor.