Stephen Colbert’s Ministry of Joy
Every weekday evening at 11:35 Eastern, and 10:35 Central time, a camera flies over an applauding and cheering audience and then zooms in on a man dancing with a melodica—a cross between kazoo and a keyboard—who bids the crowd to welcome the night’s host: “Please welcome, Stephen Colbert!” The man of the hour arrives on stage with a twinkle in his eye and a smile playing across his lips, outfitted with his trademark pressed suit, policy wonky eyeglasses, and immaculate hair. He grins and bows before the crowd as they chant his name, a holdover from The Colbert Report. “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” He indulges their adoration for a moment before silencing them with a fatherly wave of his hand, and then begins his opening monologue.
When it was announced that Colbert would end his news parody show on Comedy Central and take over The Late Show from David Letterman starting in September, I was, to say the least, not interested. I enjoyed The Colbert Report’s send up of conservative news punditry on occasion, but the shtick wore thin after just twenty or so minutes of run time. I couldn’t be bothered to follow the show with any regularity; I caught reruns if the stars aligned and I turned on the television when Colbert was on air. There was too much shouting and pretend-bullying of guests, and the show’s dedication to parodying the blustering ignorance of Fox News—while admirable and usually good for a laugh—often felt shallow in its attempts to produce meaningful commentary.
Colbert’s character was pretty good comedy, but for the life of me I could not imagine him succeeding without his famous persona. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. Plenty of comedians rely on an eccentric character: Jim Carrey, Rowan Atkinson, Tim Allen, Larry the Cable Guy, Gilbert Gottfried. You don’t see many character comedians shed their skin the way Colbert did, though. The loudmouth conservative Colbert was laid to rest in a cave, and the thoughtful, collected Colbert emerged. I did not think this would be interesting television.
I am happy to say that I was wrong. The new Late Show is one of my favorite things to watch this season, and it staggers me just how much better it is than The Colbert Report. His on-air persona, it turns out, wasn’t something that made Colbert worth watching; it’s what kept his comedy from reaching its potential. No longer weighed down by the obligation to lampoon the same trite foibles of conservative media night after night, Colbert is at last free to engage with topics and guests as matters of genuine interest, not joke fodder. He interviews poets, dancers, scientists, and writers, asking them why their work is so important to them. He commiserated with Vice President Joe Biden as they discussed losing loved ones, and he gently pushed back at Oprah as she tried to read a Psalm as a prosperity gospel. From his seat in the Ed Sullivan Theater, Colbert reigns as the public intellectual of late night television.
Through it all, from the rapid-fire jokes of the opening monologue to the sometimes intense interviews later in the show (see the interview with Bill Maher), Colbert is bursting with joy. It’s not an affectation. It’s not a mask. It’s not a character. There is a gleeful and celebratory spirit that pervades the Late Show, and, from my perspective, it is a spirit that is genuinely holy.
Colbert is a practicing Roman Catholic, and although he tries to downplay how seriously he takes his faith on the show, he is incredibly well-versed in Christian thought and Scripture. In an intimate interview with Salt and Light (a Catholic media service) from September, he jokes about Saint Basil and the Avignon Papacy, quotes Anselmus, Milton, and e.e. cummings, and cites a verse from the Sermon on the Mount as his favorite in the Bible. Indeed, Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:25 “do not worry” seems to serve as the basis for everything he does. “The opposite of worry is joy,” Colbert tells his interviewer. Colbert takes this command of Jesus as an imperative for a sort of ministry of joy, where he serves both Christ and his fellow man by maintaining his spirit of infectious exuberance.
Watching Colbert’s Late Show is remarkable, because we get to see this all too rare form of Christian joy played out every weekday night on national television. The man is gracious and humble and inviting, even to those with whom he must have severe and fundamental disagreements (again, see his interview with Bill Maher). I imagine a lot of this is lost on his audience, which still skews left and non-religious. They may not understand that when Colbert makes a crack about the Roman Catholic Church or Jesus, he does it out of utter love, but I think that’s irrelevant.
To me, it is absolutely incredible that Stephen Colbert appears nationwide, five nights a week, as a model of overflowing Christian joy. As the moon reflects the light of the sun, Colbert reflects the love and joy of God—often to an audience that might not otherwise give a serious Christian an hour of their time. There’s a quote often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Always preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” Colbert may not use his platform to thump his Bible, but through his enthusiasm and joy he shouts the Gospel from the mountaintops.