Stewart/Colbert Effect: Colbert Trumps Fallon in Trump Interview

Robert Watkins

In the school of late night, Stephen Colbert's the class clown and Jimmy Fallon's the student body president.

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

Airtime: Mondays-Fridays, 11:30pm
Cast: Stephen Colbert, Jonathan Batiste, Stay Human
Network: CBS

Late Night With Jimmy Fallon

Airtime: Mondays-Fridays, 11:30pm
Cast: Jimmy Fallon, The Roots, Steve Higgins
Network: NBC

Before I fully discovered the world of late-night television hosts, I loved watching home videos of my brother performing on stage as a student body council member. Connecting the AV cable to our oversized tube television, I used to hit play on our Hi8 VCR to watch a recording of my brother and his friends perform "So Long, Farewell" in their final student body council sketch. It was pretty straightforward -- the student body president and council sang their own interpretation of the von Trapps' farewell. I would sit, cross-legged, studying how the seemingly simplistic skit produced such loud laughter in the unseen crowd behind the camera. I mean, it was funny, but not funny funny; even so, the student body ate it up. They were seeing their elected classmates let loose and be funny, just not funny funny.

Essentially, this is Jimmy Fallon; he’s the student body president. He’s likable and friendly, he laughs at jokes, leads the late night crew, and encourages his guests to mimic the von Trapps. Hell, he’s even got the coolest kids as his supporting band. His most popular sketches are pretty much adult versions of the “So Long, Farewell”, where we get to see celebrities do lip syncs and our elected officials let loose and be funny, but not funny funny. His reward is the American public losing their minds, sharing those videos all over social media, and pushing their viewing numbers into the millions.

My first year in high school, the whole situation went topsy-turvy because the student council included a certifiable class clown. His sketches not only made the audience laugh, but they were funny on a level I had never seen in public: they were funny funny. He mocked authority and was genuinely strange.

A brief interjection about jesters and class clowns: while a student body president is something most can relate to, the class clown analogy might be confusing because it could be interpreted as pejorative. Additionally, I’m using jester and class clown as synonyms. What I’m generally referring to is the literary criticism, suggested by Mikhail Bakhtin, of the carnivalesque. Bakhtin suggests that in years past, the carnival -- or Festival of Fools -- served a social function in allowing society to become topsy-turvy for a short amount of time. For a brief window, those without authority could mock those with it, and the sacred and blasphemous could intermingle unchecked.

Bakhtin argues that this concept later transcended into the genre of novels and literature in general, and carnivalesque was born. By using a broad stroke of the term literature, and incorporating genres not familiar to Bakhtin, then it’s possible to conceive of late-night television being a form of carnivalesque. Combine this concept with the long tradition of court jesters (or clowns) being employed by royalty to entertain (and sometimes even mock authority), and the idea of Colbert being a jester (or class clown) performing carnivalesque solidifies.

Yet, when a class clown finally took over The Tonight Show, the whole scene imploded: it wasn’t safe, or popular for that matter. Conan O’Brien’s arguably hilarious take on mainstream late-night television quickly ended after a series of messy contract buy-outs, time-slot juggling, threatened cancellations, and other drama. Commentators quickly lamented the loss. However, for the next four years, the mainstream late night scene was plunged back in the dark ages as Jay Leno took over the reins once again, and as the aging jester David Letterman had become incredibly safe.

Insert Stephen Colbert. The announcement of his takeover of Letterman’s reign (who arguably was once a jester many decades ago) was met with interest, curiosity, and excitement. Colbert had been playing a character for over a decade on cable late night and had done so with amazing success. For ten years on The Colbert Report, and years prior as a correspondent on The Daily Show he had ripped apart high-profile guests such as Laura Ingraham and had pointed out the hypocrisy of aristocracy. But who was he really? Was he actually this character he portrayed, or was this just an act that would fold on itself on mainstream late-night television? I was especially curious if his show would bring another student body president, or fill in the dearth of jesters.

A colleague of mine recently reminded me that we needed not look any further than Colbert’s performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner for evidence that Colbert is clearly a jester. In an almost painful show of reality mixed with showmanship, Colbert coyly mocks Mr. Bush in front of a live audience with precision and skill in a carnivaleqsue tradition that would make any jester proud. However, this moment took place during the infancy of The Colbert Report and only a year or two removed from his tenure at The Daily Show. It was still unclear how he would behave as his “true” self on The Late Show.

Colbert’s recent interview with Donald Trump should remove all doubt that his new persona is the jester we’ve so desperately needed on late-night television. While brilliantly keeping the monolith of Trump at bay and never out-right insulting him, he instead makes Trump dance the dance of a monarch figure in front of his subjects at carnival. Colbert’s jabs are precise, surgical, and coy. Trump is both in on the joke while being made fun of, and is also helpless to do anything about the insults that make him uncomfortable. If he doesn’t perform the dance, he will play the fool. Colbert’s years on The Daily Show and on The Colbert Report have affected him to the point that his public persona and his character have become precision jesters able to bring down the most powerful a la carnivalesque.

Compare that with Fallon’s milquetoast interview with Trump. Fallon seems to allow Trump to walk all over him. In many ways, Jimmy Fallon is famous mostly for laughing. His Saturday Night Live: Jimmy Fallon highlight DVD seem to be mostly him breaking, a fact Adam Sandler and Adam Sandberg riffed on in "That’s When You Break" in the SNL 40th Anniversary episode. This trait can be endearing, but in the interview with Trump, it felt like Trump was attempting to control Fallon, as Trump is apt to do. The low-light was having Trump call Fallon out when Fallon tried to go off script. At no point during Colbert’s interview did it seem that there was a script, or that Trump even knows what Colbert was doing. Yet with Fallon, it seems that each question is carefully scripted and planned out. Even Fallon’s Trump impersonation sketch is so tame it feels more like an endorsement than a jester mocking the monarch.

Granted, this isn’t a Highlander situation, where only one late night host can emerge victorious. Fallon’s ability to create von Trapp lip-syncs with celebrities and making elected officials feel safe has mass appeal, and can be a lot of fun to experience. There’s plenty of room for the student body president and the jester to be on the same stage. But when it comes to interviews and sketches that attempt to flip the power on its head, the major network, late-night scene has been in desperate need of a jester. Colbert’s interview with Donald Trump proves that the character he’s been playing was at least partially based in the reality of his class clown talent. I’m looking forward to seeing what other The Colbert Report/The Daily Show nuances are yet to appear in The Late Show, and what rhetorically precise takedowns Colbert has in his repertoire in the months and years to come.

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