A Host With Heart: Can Stephen Colbert Redefine an Emotionally-Impoverished Genre?

Late night television franchises are perhaps best-known for their trademark monologues, punchy one-liners, forced-smiles and light-hearted, softball interviews with obliging celebrities. But if his first two shows are any indication of what's to come, Stephen Colbert's Late Show could redefine a genre that, as of late, has struggled to attract and keep viewers.

Last Thursday, Colbert featured Vice President Joe Biden on the show, and for a moment, it seemed as if Colbert might treat Biden as the The Onion has: as a caricature, as a joke with a self-contained punchline.

"Everybody likes Joe Biden, right?" he asked. "Isn't that right?"

The comment drew laughs from the studio audience.

But then, quite unexpectedly, Colbert offered his condolences to Biden for the loss of his eldest son, Beau, and said, "I was hoping you could tell us a story about him."

What followed was less an interview than it was an emotionally-fraught, deeply-personal colloquy on the nature of grief, a topic well-known to both Biden and Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash forty years ago.

The exchange drew relatively few laughs. At one point, Biden seemed as though he might tear-up.

Colbert ended the interview with a heartfelt plea for Biden to enter the presidential race, saying, "I think we'd all be very happy if you did run, and if you don't, I know that your service to the country is something we should all salute."

As he makes his transition from playing a cantankerous conservative political pundit -- a role he played for nearly a decade as host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report -- to playing himself as the host of The Late Show, there's been much discussion about who the "real" Stephen Colbert is. Without the veneer, what would he be like? How is he as an interviewer? What makes him tick?

Watching Colbert's interview with Biden, I was reminded of the time I was fortunate enough to witness a glimpse of the "real" Stephen Colbert.

In 2013, I attended a fundraiser for Colbert's sister, Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, who at the time was running for a seat in Congress. Her famous brother, then still the host of The Colbert Report, spoke at the event.

I'm not sure what I was expecting at the time. I, like most people, knew Stephen Colbert best for his work on Comedy Central, as a correspondent for the Daily Show, as a cast member of Chicago's famous Second City.

If he did tell any jokes that day, I don't remember them. Instead, what I remember most distinctly is he story he told about visiting his sister in New York on September 11th, 2001. He said that he told her how unfortunate it was that his visit had coincided with such unspeakable tragedy. He had been looking forward to visiting her, and yet he couldn't imagine a worse day to have been in New York City.

His sister, he said, didn't agree. She told him how glad she was to have him there -- how glad she was that he could be in New York that day. The city, she said, was coming together. It was New York City at best, not its worst.

This was what Stephen Colbert thought we should know about his sister.

I'm paraphrasing him as best I can -- it's his anecdote, and I can't tell it nearly as well as he did -- but it radically altered my view of him. I came to see him as someone of substance -- someone whose thoughts linger in deeper places; someone who sees hope where others see only sorrow; someone whose comedy is informed at least in part by the profound tragedy he has experienced in his life.

That late night television has been hemorrhaging viewers -- especially younger viewers -- for years is no secret. I personally do not watch it. I found Jay Leno's square-jawed "did you hear about this" brand of humor obnoxious; I found Letterman's top-ten lists bland; and, for the most part, I don't find Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon or Seth Meyers particularly compelling.

But Stephen Colbert's interview with Vice President Biden had me taking note. As I see things, Colbert now has a chance to redefine late night television as we know it. He has chance to imbue it not with the trite, topical humor we have come to expect from the genre, but rather with the full range of emotions that encompass the human experience: grief, fear, hope, sorrow and, of course, humor -- lots and lots of humor. It's an opportunity I hope he seizes.