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Stephen Colbert the persona is ending – and I will miss him

Will we recognise the “real” Stephen Colbert when he discards his persona to become the host of The Late Show? EPA/Paul Buck

What happens when an actor who has built an amazing persona is called upon to reveal a truer self? When Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, discards his right-wing talk show host persona and takes over the reins of The Late Show some time next year, replacing David Letterman, we’ll find out.

On March 24 Bryan Cranston, the lead actor in Breaking Bad, appeared on The Colbert Report. Cranston was there to publicise his latest Broadway play All The Way where he stars as LBJ, the American president who succeeded Kennedy after his assassination. Colbert asked Cranston:

What are you doing to yourself onstage to make yourself LBJ? Your posture is different … your face is different. Are you acting?

Cranston replied:

Yeah … you don’t want to do an impersonation, but you want to get an essence of him, a flavour of him. So I always know that when I am ready to perform is when that character ceases to be outside of me and is welcomed inside so to speak.

And then Cranston turned it back on Colbert:

You know what I mean? You act …

For an instant, Colbert was invited to leave his parodic persona as a right-wing talk-show host, an identity he has inhabited with ferocity since 2007. It was a cajoling question between two actors. The identity-confusion gap quickly closed, however, when Colbert replied: “No, no, I don’t know what you mean”. The real version of himself was not allowed to squeeze through.

Even this stutter in a performance has a certain normalcy in the Colbert universe.

Seven years of Colbert

The pleasure of watching the Colbert Report is to revel in the absurdity of his positions, his over-the-top narcissism, and ultimately his more than playful parody of the Rush Limbaughs, Bill O’Reillys of the televisual world. The graphics that open the show and provide the segues between segments have reconstructed like a parallel universe the American patriotic tilt of images that populate Fox News.

The alluring wrinkle in this performance is the lack of distance between Stephen Colbert the person and Stephen Colbert the performer of this role.

Because it is couched in the role of a television “host” and even more effectively, a news host, the reality effect is that much stronger. The audience inhabits a purgatorial position – trying to work out how aware the real Colbert is of the parody.

Colbert commits to both the right-wing talk show host – but there’s another persona present too, made apparent through the perceived insincerity of the penetrating gazes, the double meaning of an eyebrow raising or an over-the-top reaction and understanding the “inside” jokes.

From persona to the real Colbert

Colbert’s performance is so overwhelming and energised in its layers and masks of constructed “real” identity, it is hard to imagine him in any other way. The sad truth is we have to now.

A little over two weeks after his interview with Bryan Cranston, CBS announced that Colbert would replace the retiring David Letterman as the host of the Late Show.

Colbert and Letterman Selfie on the Late Show posted on Twitter this 22 April: note Colbert’s new glasses - so real. Twitter and CBS

Constructions of public identities work in interesting and para-social ways with audiences. With Colbert, converting his public persona to a real television talk show host will require him to drop his current masked identity. According to most reports, at least in a public sense, Colbert has only done this a handful of times for the eight years the Colbert Show has been on television.

Hosting the Late Show will produce a qualitatively different public persona.

For one, while the Colbert Report persona ridiculed the actual operation of television itself via its home on Comedy Central, The Late Show however defined by both light entertainment and comedy is also much more closely identified with traditional notions of television and representation: after all, it is the same network that gave us the most venerated figure of American television, Walter Cronkite.

Making public personas on talk shows

Talk show hosts are traditionally the way information about public personalities makes its way to the public. The “guests” who are generally incredibly well-known are there to reveal as much as construct their public identities further.

The host, interestingly, has generally been a pleasant, slightly humorous foil to this engagement in celebrity culture. But, at their core – whether the host is Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres or Conan O’Brien – hosts are generally perceived to be portraying their true selves.

Carson embodied an urbane and laconic humour; while Letterman occasionally allowed his feigned disinterest to articulate his distance from his subjects and his humour.

So far, Colbert the person – to distinguish him necessarily from the actor and the character – is a very private individual that reveals very little publicly.

We know he is a devout Catholic. We know he is married and had a difficult childhood in South Carolina. We know he learned his approach to performance and comedy from working at Second City in Chicago after studying drama at Northwestern University.

Up until now, however, that personal identity has not been a major force in his public persona. In fact, his totalising role on the Colbert Report has led to a rare moment in our public culture where the private and the public are not blended.

As he transitions from total persona to a real talk show host Stephen Colbert will be expected to reveal a true self. He may shift the conventions of what a talk show does – but my suspicion is that he will begin to resemble his predecessors, and that sadly, the interesting experiment of totally constructed public persona of the Colbert Report will become just a character that he plays occasionally.

I will miss him.

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