DC Beware: Stephen Colbert is coming for you

David Letterman will be handing over the Late Show to Stephen Colbert next year and will likely take laser aim at the Washington political elite.
David Letterman will be handing over the Late Show to Stephen Colbert next year and will likely take laser aim at the Washington political elite.

Stephen Colbert is known for tearing apart politicians with an acerbic, unforgiving wit – a trademark that strikes fear in the heart of many a public official.

But if Washington’s political types were scared of being the butt of Colbert’s jokes on Comedy Central, they’ll be downright terrified when he replaces David Letterman as host of The Late Show next year. That appointment, which CBS announced Thursday, will likely increase his audience threefold.

Colbert has built his career by lampooning, satirizing and often embarrassing both the political class and the media establishment that covers it. When politicians visit Letterman, Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel, they can expect a relatively friendly, tame interview that leaves their reputation unscathed. A segment with Colbert, by contrast, can be a trial by fire.

“He’s clearly the most political late night host, and arguably the most partisan,” said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University and the author of the forthcoming book Politics Is a Joke: How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life.

“I think he’s probably going to stir more controversy than a lot of others would,” Lichter said. “He’s going to take his own political sensibility as part of what he does. There’s probably going to be more complaints and controversies than there would be with a Jimmy Kimmel type.”

Colbert has also had an unparalleled obsession with national politics outside the show, having run for president, launched a super PAC, co-hosted a political rally on the National Mall, attended a state dinner (where he sat next to first lady Michelle Obama) and delivered a White House Correspondents’ Dinner address. Colbert even attended this year’s Gridiron Dinner, an annual white-tie event hosted by an exclusive club of prestigious Washington journalists.

Here, too, Colbert has not shied away from his biting brand of humor. There’s a saying historically associated with the annual correspondents’ dinner stand-up routine, which is that the speaker should “singe, not burn.” Colbert all but ignored that maxim when he delivered jab after jab at President George W. Bush in 2006.

“I know there’s some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent approval rating,” Colbert said during the address. “But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking ‘in reality,’ and reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

Colbert’s criticism of Obama can been equally severe, if less frequent. In response to the news that the National Security Agency was spying on Americans’ phone calls, Colbert said, “Folks, I’m going to be straight with you. I’m conflicted here, folks. On the one hand, this proves Obama is a tyrannical despot who ignores all the rules. On the other hand, I kind of like tyrannical despots who ignore all the rules. Shows spunk.”

Colbert’s future competitors – NBC’s Fallon and ABC’s Kimmel – are not nearly so preoccupied with Washington, nor with political satire. Like Leno and Letterman before them, they practice a more general brand of humor. When they do venture into the political, they often adhere to the traditional formula of a setup (about, say, New Jersey traffic) followed by a punchline (about, say, Chris Christie’s weight), rather than offering the kind of relentless, policy-informed excoriations that characterize Colbert’s monologues.

“He actually knows a lot about politics,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who served as a media adviser to George W. Bush and John McCain. “He probably knows more about how PACs work than most of the people in Congress.”

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