Is Stephen Colbert actually Rosie O’Donnell in reverse?Published at
As I watched the debut episode of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” I was struck by a bizarre question: Is Stephen Colbert actually Rosie O’Donnell in reverse?
Rosie O’Donnell’s current career trajectory relies on her reputation as an opinionated advocate for left-wing causes, which leads her to talk over her opponents and shout down anyone who disagrees. But this was not always the case. When she hosted her eponymous daytime talk show from 1996 until 2002, Newsweek magazine dubbed her the “Queen of Nice” for being unfailingly kind to all of her guests. The show was a ratings smash, and O’Donnell was beloved — until she decided to ambush Tom Selleck in May of 1999.
Selleck had come on her program to promote his movie “The Love Letter,” but O’Donnell used the appearance to ambush him about his support for the National Rifle Association. Selleck did his best to be gracious under fire, but O’Donnell was unrelenting in her assault. Her general tone and demeanor changed markedly from that point forward. She abandoned her niceness and pursued a strident ideological agenda, which led her to a tumultuous tenure on ABC’s “The View” and a low-rated talk show on Oprah Winfrey’s cable network.
I find overt political badgering to be tedious in the extreme, regardless of which side it’s coming from. That’s why I’m no fan of O’Donnell and also why I was disappointed to learn that Stephen Colbert was taking the reigns of David Letterman’s “Late Show” on CBS. His previous effort, “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, featured Colbert playing the character of a conservative straw man, who smugly and condescendingly mocked blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. True, his shtick had a lighter touch than O’Donnell’s sledgehammer approach, but it was, in its own self-satisfied way, stridently O’Donnell-esque in its unwillingness to acknowledge any merit or decency in opposing points of view.
When Colbert announced he would be hosting “The Late Show” as himself and not as his pompous Comedy Central character, that did little to assuage my concerns. In my mind, that meant that he would have license to beat up on his conservative guests without hiding behind any satirical pretense, and I expected him to become even more insufferable than he had been before. He promised a slate of appearances from political figures as well as traditional celebrities, so I tuned in to his debut performance out of morbid curiosity more than anything else. I had no expectations that I might actually be entertained; I only wanted to see how mean he would be to presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who was his second guest after George Clooney.
So imagine my surprise to discover that Stephen Colbert, when he drops his satirical smirk, turns out to be a genuinely pleasant human being — and funny besides.
Yes, he spent a good deal of time mocking Donald Trump, but it was mostly silly, not vicious. And when the time came to interview Jeb, he asked respectful, intelligent questions and seemed genuinely interested in Jeb’s answers. He even told Bush that there was a “non-zero percent chance” that he might actually vote for him. Neither David Letterman nor Rosie O’Donnell would ever have been anywhere near that gracious.
That’s not to say it was a perfect show. Colbert relied on some ham-handed gimmicks a bit too much, and the show still seems to be finding his feet. But it wasn’t at all bad for a first time around the block. I think the television landscape is better served with Colbert moving out of Rosie O’Donnell’s territory and seeing what it feels like to be the King of Nice.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.