Stephen Colbert Had Another Awkward Interview. Is He Too Good for Late Night TV?

What is going on with Stephen Colbert? The Late Show host had another awkward interview yesterday, this time with perennial late night troll Casey Affleck.

Colbert took exception to Affleck’s attire — wrinkled khakis, a poorly fitting jacket and a ruffled, unbuttoned shirt — and spent the first half of the interview letting him know. “It’s not a joke though, you really look like a street corner Jesus,” Colbert said.

Affleck was on the show to promote his latest movie, Triple 9, a cop drama starring Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson and Aaron Paul. In all honesty, the movie doesn’t look very good, and the reviews have not been favourable. At one point, Colbert admits he didn’t even finish the pre-interview screener.

“I’ve only seen an hour and ten minutes of it,” Colbert said, “because I had to stop and help my son with a science experiment. That’s a true story.”

After the clip, while asking the usual scripted questions, Colbert looks genuinely disinterested. So you went on a ride along, huh? Oh, it was really stressful, huh?

This comes just a few weeks after a very uncomfortable sit-down with Silicon Valley‘s TJ Miller, who was on to promote his hosting gig at the Critics’ Choice Awards.

At no point does Colbert appear engaged or interested. At times he seems openly disdainful of his guest.

So what is happening here?

Colbert is not quite acerbic enough for this to be a schtick like Ricky Gervais’ routine at award shows. And while the Affleck interview has kind of blown up today, the clips themselves aren’t exciting enough to be intentionally viral. Who knows? Maybe his booking agent is just kind of crappy.

Or maybe there’s another answer. Colbert has always been at his best talking about big ideas to powerful and interesting subjects, using his charisma and sincerity to draw out their humanity. Take, for instance, this interview with US Vice President Joe Biden from September.

Just watch as the conversation turns to Biden’s plans for running for the Democratic nomination. Colbert asks about the emotional commitment required for a presidential campaign, a subtle question touching on the death of Biden’s son Beau, who passed in May 2015 after a battle with cancer.

Biden’s answer offers a level of honesty and consideration you don’t see from traditional late night guests, let alone a career politician. It’s a moving interview, and a rousing example of Colbert’s best qualities — the tact and patience to let the conversation really breathe. He’s in no rush to sneak in a joke, a trait you don’t often see in traditional late night hosts.

Maybe the lesson here is that Colbert’s talents are being misused. That by trying to force him into the standard issue celebrity interview mould à la Fallon or Kimmel, we’re denying one of our most cogent broadcasting voices the opportunity to do his best work. Colbert should be getting deep into it with Ta-Nehisi Coates, not plugging B-movies with Batman’s little brother. Letterman helped establish so many of late night television’s conventions, but he’s no longer behind that storied desk. Let’s give his successor a chance to move the format forward.