Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
September 8, 2015

Colbert: Fit to Be Untied

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The new Late Show with Stephen Colbert starts tonight. For those who have been watching Colbert’s brand of sharp conservative satire over the past decade, one of the big questions is whether his new digs at CBS will put a squeeze on his left-(or-is-it-right-)leaning political commentary. His surroundings do feel a little stale and impersonal in this photograph from today’s New York Times piece, so I wonder if this is one of those cases where the best way to contain a dissenting voice is to, you know, institutionalize it.

Not so fast? Considering how Colbert made a career out of playing the square, he’s probably just about had it with having his reputation tied to a script. What we’re seeing in this photograph is the look of a person who’s reached a tipping point. Ready to burst. Ready to come out and just blow the roof off this place. Just you wait and see. There’s a new boss in town, and it looks like they’ve found a pretty good fit.

Whatever happens out on the stage, more than likely viewers will always see in Mr. Colbert a reflection of his old arch-conservative alter ego. That character spent more than ten years keeping right-wing parody just on the brink of undisguised ridicule. Remember that skewering of George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner? Or that congressional hearing on migrant labor?

As these instances show, Colbert’s public flirtation with the boundary between comedy and sincerity seems like it was almost entirely an effect of not breaking character. So maybe it’s too much to ask that a person keep things buttoned up for so long. Considering the impact of that hardline temperament on the national conversation about polarizing politics, whether or not Colbert lets loose from here on out is unlikely to detract from the strength of his résumé. A show must go on, as they always seem to say, and the prospect of seeing reflections of the past on the set of the Ed Sullivan Theater is a big reason why the debut of Colbert 2.0 has audiences on the edge of their seat.

— Philip Perdue

(photo: Damon Winter/New York Times. caption: Mr. Colbert preparing to film a segment of the show’s opening credits).

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