How Stephen Colbert wins by being tough on Trump

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A common refrain since Stephen Colbert took over CBS’ “Late Show” has been that by abandoning the conservative blowhard he played on Comedy Central, it was hard to tell who “the real Stephen Colbert” is.

In his recent pointed criticism of Donald Trump, Colbert seems to have found his voice, with all the opportunity — and risk — that entails.

Colbert has exhibited an ability to pivot toward serious news events in a way that his late-night broadcast rivals generally can’t, or don’t. That included his response to the mass shooting in Orlando and Trump’s subsequent rhetoric, which on Monday featured Colbert’s extended, pointed yet respectful conversation with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

The next night, Colbert took on Trump’s veiled comments about President Obama — which provoked charges of racism — by connecting the words to form a swastika on a chalkboard.

Colbert was satirizing Trump’s tactic of being intentionally vague in his language, but using that symbol can be inflammatory. (The clip has nearly 4 million views on “Late Show’s” YouTube page.)

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While other hosts, including Bill Maher, John Oliver, Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee, have taken on Trump, Colbert’s bit wasn’t the kind one would expect to see from late-night ratings leader Jimmy Fallon, who serves up a lighter form of comedy.

What seems increasingly clear is that with the campaign entering the general election phase, Colbert has a window in which to distinguish and define his program.

The challenge is that becoming more political might not broaden his appeal, and indeed, will surely alienate some. Then again, Jay Leno — notoriously even-handed during his “Tonight Show” run — has said Trump’s more outlandish pronouncements would make it difficult for him to evenly dole out jokes today.

Among the advantages, a more topical approach would likely strengthen Colbert’s bonds with those who chanted his name on “The Colbert Report,” and provide a consistent point of view — one at times lacking during his celebrity interviews, where he can look as disengaged as predecessor David Letterman did during his later years.

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Colbert doesn’t need to beat Fallon to be considered a success, but CBS would surely like to see the numbers improve. For the season, “Tonight” averages more than 3.7 million viewers — with a sizable lead among the younger demographics sold to advertisers — to “Late Show’s” 2.9 million. The network brought in executive producer Chris Licht from “CBS This Morning” in April.

CBS also has a high-class problem, in that some media pundits see “Late Late Show” host James Corden as possessing the kind of viral profile that might fare better at 11:30 p.m. That’s hardly a given, though, and there’s merit in trying to offer a more substantial counterweight to “Tonight,” as opposed to trying to out-Fallon it.

It’s possible, of course, that Colbert — having flourished on Comedy Central, where ratings expectations were lower — is simply better suited to a narrower platform. In that venue he cultivated a reputation for comedic fearlessness, exemplified by his performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner.

Yet in a niche-oriented TV age, there’s value in generating passion and garnering buzz. So to borrow a phrase used about Ronald Reagan, it’s time to let Colbert be Colbert.

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