“Being a candidate sucks,” Stephen Colbert said on The Late Show last night. “It’s an ugly, nasty battle with a single, bloodied survivor. It’s like The Hunger Games.”
He paused. “No! It’s more than that! It’s The Hungry for Power Games!”
A Panem-esque presidential seal (flaming, naturally) filled the screen—and then the camera settled back onto Colbert, who had in the meantime donned a silver blazer, a satin bow tie, and an electric blue wig. Colbert had transformed himself into The Hunger Games’s Caesar Flickerman—or, more specifically, into Stanley Tucci’s interpretation of Caesar Flickerman. “Tributes, assemble!” Colbert yelled, as a Photoshop of all the 2016 presidential candidates flashed. “Look at them, so hopeful and fresh-faced,” Colbert-as-Tucci-as-Flickerman mused. “Well, hopeful. Children, let this be a cautionary tale: moisturize.”
The Late Show host then proceeded to make fun of the candidates—many of whom have been or will be guests on his show. He mocked the polling numbers of “fallen tributes” Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb. (“If a tree fell in a forest, and there was no one around to hear it—it would still get more points than Jim Webb.”) He called Webb a “talking cinderblock.” He said of Chafee, “this Lincoln had all the charisma of the logs he was named for.” He made fun of Donald Trump’s hair. (“By the way, Donald, as a friend: That golden wig is a bit over the top. Tone it down.”)
It was a great skit, capturing both the structure and the absurdity of the presidential primary system. It was also one he’s done before: In mid-September, as Republican candidates were dropping out of the race for the GOP nomination, the Colbert-ized Flickerman made an earlier appearance on The Late Show. And Colbert has sold the schtick, doubling down on the Flickermanian mannerisms: eyebrow raises, maniacal laughs, swishes of champagne. He was clearly having a great time. He was clearly in his element.
There’s a good reason for that: For years, Colbert played a character, slyly satirizing politics in the process. But while role-playing is a common thing on late-night comedy—Johnny Carson had, among other characters, Art Fern and Aunt Blabby and Carnac—Colbert himself has largely eschewed acting on his show. As The New York Times put it when announcing his move from The Colbert Report to standard-issue late night, “Colbert Will Host ‘Late Show,’ Playing Himself for a Change.”
The thing was: No one knew, exactly, what “playing himself” would look like. Would he be an affable comedian, in the mold of Leno and Fallon? Would he be a prankster, in the manner of Kimmel? Would he be delightfully crotchety, a la Letterman? Would he expand his schtick, as Carson did, into characters that function as sub-schticks?
The Hungry for Power Games suggests that the real Stephen Colbert might be most at home being a combination: of himself and other people. And that’s particularly so when it comes to the somewhat awkward matter of politics. Last night’s role-playing, just as last month’s role-playing did, gave Colbert an excuse to mercilessly mock presidential candidates—without compromising his “nice guy” persona. If Colbert is part of “the nicening of late night,” this was a way to bring a little meanness into the mix—while keeping all the menschiness and humanism he is known for intact.
The role-playing is a kind of insurance policy, too: If Colbert is trying, as he seems to be, to turn the Ed Sullivan theater into a kind of public square, that means that he’ll have several political guests, be they candidates or current policy-makers, on his easy chair. He’s already had Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Tomorrow, he’ll have Hillary Clinton. And Colbert has varied widely in his treatment of the candidates he’s had on the show—hardballs to Cruz, softballs to Trump, and much in-between. He hasn’t, save for his interview with Joe Biden, seemed very comfortable with the potentially journalistic elements of the Late Show gig.
Playing a character, however—and a ridiculous character, at that—allows Colbert to talk about politics without, himself, really talking about politics. It allows him to revel in absurdities without getting into policies. It allows him to make fun while also letting him—and his audience—have fun. And, perhaps just as importantly, it also helps his bookers to do their jobs: to keep the politicians coming back. Last night Colbert also made a joke about Hillary. He smirked a bit, looking directly at the camera. He said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Secretary Clinton.” He had broken character. But in another way, he hadn’t.