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Colbert as 'Late Show' host adds unpredictable new factor to 2016 race

Stephen Colbert participates in "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" segment of the CBS Summer TCA Tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

When Stephen Colbert takes the stage in the Ed Sullivan Theater on Tuesday, he faces many questions, but perhaps chief among them is how political his new show is going to be and how much it may influence voters heading into the 2016 presidential election.

Colbert returns to the air with "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" nine months after the end of his Comedy Central series, "The Colbert Report," which focused for nearly ten years on Colbert's elaborate parody of a conservative talk show host.

The real Stephen Colbert also steps into an unexpectedly hotly-contested presidential campaign and a relative vacuum in television political comedy with Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" gone and "Saturday Night Live" still on its summer hiatus.

Sophia McClennen, a professor at Penn State University, described "The Colbert Report" as one of "the most politically significant satire shows in our nation's history," and said some of that wit and commentary will to carry over to CBS, even if the character does not.

"Tonight's show is obviously going to tell us a lot," said McClennen, co-author of "Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics," but "we have fairly significant evidence that politics is still going to be part of his landscape."

"I think there's the expectation, at least, that Stephen Colbert will be more political," said Amy Becker, a professor at Loyola University Maryland who has studied the political impact on viewers of "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show."

"Everyone's kind of waiting to see how explicitly [political] he's going to be without having that parodic frame as a kind of shell," said Ethan Thompson, a professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and co-editor of "Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era."

Unlike his predecessor, David Letterman, who came to CBS from another network late night show, Colbert has an established history of comedy focused squarely on politics, which likely leaves many viewers expecting more of the same.

To remain competitive on the late night landscape with NBC's Jimmy Fallon and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, however, Colbert will need to draw several times more viewers than he did at Comedy Central. While some, including Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, have suggested Colbert may have trouble finding that broader audience, experts on political satire seemed less concerned.

"The thing about Stephen Colbert is that he's so smart. I don't foresee him having any problem appealing to a very broad audience...He has stretches and reaches that extend well beyond what we knew him for in 'The Colbert Report,'" said Alison Dagnes, a professor at Shippenburg University and author of "A Conservative Walks Into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor."

Thompson said it can be difficult to attract wide audiences with political comedy and satire, but "he's a smart enough guy and if anybody can do it, it's him."

Colbert has released several videos online over the summer, giving audiences the first taste of his new on-screen persona with occasional political undertones, including a parody of Donald Trump's campaign announcement and an ad featuring 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.


Becker said the content Colbert has released so far indicates a more traditional late night experience tailored to a wider audience.

Colbert will bring some of his fans with him from Comedy Central, and many of David Letterman's viewers will certainly tune in, at least at first. Keeping both of those audiences, and in the process bringing down the average age of CBS viewers, will be his first big challenge, though.

The guest list for Colbert's first week includes a mix of top celebrities and prominent political figures, with Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush and Vice President Joe Biden scheduled to appear alongside actor George Clooney and country singer Toby Keith.

"Colbert comes into this with a preexisting political not only understanding but also reputation, and so while Letterman got his start on late night...Colbert comes into this having been a formidable figure in terms of political satire, so it does not seem incongruous for him to host Jeb Bush," Dagnes said.

"I think it's probably surprising that he doesn't have Trump coming on," Thompson said. Bush, who has fallen behind Trump in the polls and who Trump mocked Tuesday for putting audiences to sleep, may need this high-profile interview more than anyone.

Bush got some positive press earlier this year slow-jamming the news on "The Tonight Show," so he may be hoping for a similar bounce from his Colbert appearance.

He did generate some controversy, and a humorous response from Colbert, when he announced a contest for supporters to win tickets to Tuesday's show.

Colbert's interview with Bush on Tuesday will likely provide the clearest sense of how he is going to approach politics and how it is going to fit in with his other material.

Colbert has already stated that he is anxious for the opportunity to make jokes about Trump--complaining last month that he was "dry-Trumping" without an outlet for them--but McClennen said the rest of the candidates are also likely targets for comedy.

As many have observed, Trump's tendency toward outrageous statements and controversial policy positions has driven many of his opponents to adopt similar tactics. When the political conversation is focused on emotional debates rather than serious political issues, McClennen said, "satire is perfect for all that."

Colbert's premiere is the first in a wave of changes coming to the political comedy world, with new host Trevor Noah taking over Stewart's chair at "The Daily Show" starting September 28.

Noah is something of a wild card, both in terms of his approach to political material and his impact on audiences.

For most viewers, Noah is largely a blank slate, with little national exposure beyond a few brief on-air appearances and some controversial tweets. Much of the show's fandom was built on allegiance to Stewart, Dagnes said, so getting that audience back and keeping them will be a challenge.

Experts expect Noah, a South African comedian, to adopt a more global perspective.

"It's so hard to say because you've just seen so little of him," Thompson said, but "I think we're all kind of expecting that there'll be more of a global focus."

Becker said Noah will likely aim to produce more viral content than Stewart did, "responding to the changing needs of the millennial audience."

McClennen predicted Noah may take a similar approach to John Oliver on HBO's "Last Week Tonight," taking on national and global issues more than targeting particular candidates.

"Trevor Noah can't take down Donald Trump," McClennen said. "It doesn't work like that."

One of the longest running forces in political satire, "Saturday Night Live," returns for a new season on October 3 to an election cycle atmosphere ripe for mockery, but the show's potential impact is difficult to gauge.

Tina Fey's portrayal of Sarah Palin on "SNL" in the fall of 2008 is often cited as an example of the power of political comedy because it helped define Palin for an undecided electorate. Since the 2012 election, though, the show has rarely made notable political waves.

"When you talk about a show literally transforming the election, 'Saturday Night Live' did that" in 2008, McClennen said.

People still talk about the show, Thompson said, but it needs a hook to capture viewers' attention with its political material, which it has lacked in recent years. He suggested that one reason the show seems less relevant at the moment is that it never quite captured a perfect parody of President Obama the way it has every other president since it premiered.

The Barack Obama "anger translator" sketches on Comedy Central's "Key and Peele" satirized Obama much more effectively than "SNL" has, Thompson said.

With the 2016 candidates, the show may be on steadier ground. Kate McKinnon, its current Hillary Clinton--the show's strongest political parody since Fey's Palin, according to Thompson--is nominated for an Emmy, and "Saturday Night Live" has been mocking Donald Trump for decades.

"It reinforces the way people think of Hillary Clinton already," Thompson said of McKinnon's performance, and like the best political impressions it goes beyond mimicry to "somehow crystalize some aspect of that character."

Experts predict the show's political content will focus on Trump and Clinton this fall, not necessarily because they are easier targets, but because they are the candidates with the most name recognition. National audiences are far more likely to get a joke about Hillary Clinton's emails than about Carly Fiorina at this point.

The show has also been in a transitional period, seeking an audience amid increasing competition from other outlets.

"With the huge, vast media landscape available to consumers, there are almost too many options for us at this point and so 'SNL' has to figure out how they're going to play into that," Dagnes said.

"There's some low-hanging fruit for comedians who I'm certain will make the best of it," she predicted.

The relative obscurity of Democratic candidate Lincoln Chafee has led to TBS host Conan O'Brien campaigning to get him to 1% in the polls.

While the new crop of presidential candidates in both parties will provide ample material to be mined for comic gold, whether any of the jokes will move the dial of public opinion is less certain.

"I think that it can give people the opportunity to see things in a different way," Thompson said of political humor, but it rarely changes minds.

"Is comedy going to change the way that anybody thinks about Donald Trump? I don't think so."

This is particularly true, according to Thompson, because audiences today often seek out comedy that reinforces what they already feel and think, and modern viewers have so many options available to them.

The nature of political comedy and the way audiences experience it have changed since the 2012 election, with key demographics looking more to social media than to TV screens.

"It's much more about which clips get shared in your social media feed" than watching a whole show live, Becker said.

"Millennials don't really tune in for these types of shows," McClennen said. They see the best content the next day on their phones and tablets.

The current generation of late night hosts are packaging content in different ways and viewers are consuming them differently.

Fallon and Kimmel have proven adept at creating viral content, and John Oliver has mastered his own brand of YouTube-friendly political humor segments at HBO. Colbert will need to compete with them--as well as Noah, 'SNL,' other Comedy Central shows, and countless online content creators--for the attention of the millennial audience.

McClennen noted the rise of what she called "citizen satire," average internet users with a "mock the vote" attitude creating memes and hash tags and tweeting jokes. "In part because of the vacuum left by Stewart and Colbert," she said, users on Twitter took on joking about the first Republican debate last month themselves.

"We almost don't need the professional comedians anymore to give us the guidance," she said.

"There's just so much stuff out there and there's new ways to get it...The availability of political humor is so vast you can catch it in five different mechanisms in 50 different forms," Dagnes said.

Comedian and podcaster Marc Maron told Dagnes that most audiences tune out when stand-up comedians start talking about politics. The audiences that are most receptive to his political material are the ones that are seeking out political comedy and already share his views.

Research has shown that, while political comedy may not change minds, it can open audiences up to new perspectives and spur them to seek information about a topic. Viewers may hear a joke and then turn to traditional news outlets for the background information to understand it.

That is rarely the primary goal, though, and it likely will not be for "The Late Show" either. Even for "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," Dagnes said, "The truth of the matter is the comedy had to come first."

"The job of comedy isn't to educate, it's to entertain."

Colbert has proven since his days as a "Daily Show" correspondent that he understands the difference, but Tuesday night's show will reveal how he intends to demonstrate his mastery of both in his new role.

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