The brilliance of the extended performance piece that was The Colbert Report duly acknowledged, the portions of the program I most adored were those instances when the host’s disguise fell just enough for his inner fan to emerge. In crafting a nightly show partially dependent on the guests with some amount of celebrity, Stephen Colbert at some point figured out that the rundown could be shaped in part by his own personal predilections formed through a lifetime of obsessive attention to science fiction, fantasy novels, comics books, and other touchstones of Gen X geekery. I admired the way he lived out his pop culture dreams, beaming with joy to the camera as he did so.
The trend, of course, continues on The Late Show, boosted by Colbert’s liberation from play-acting a conservative commentator. My interest in watching late night talk shows, once ludicrously high, had dissipated almost completely. But I do believe a guarantee that every episode would deliver a segment along the lines of Colbert eagerly discussing vintage science fiction paperbacks with Paul Giamatti for several minutes of precious network airtime, with genuine disregard for whether or not the conversation was interesting to the audience, could entirely revive my bygone viewing habits.
Earlier this week, Colbert again demonstrated the pure joy that can be derived from presiding over a regularly airing television spectacle. The Mountain Goats were booked as a musical guest, presumably to promote their new album, In League with Dragons. Standard procedure is for the band to offer a live performance of one song from the new record and receive a chipper thanks from the host, probably coupled with a shouted good night and the closing of the show since network mathematics long ago determined that music acts chase away enough viewers that they need to be relegated to the point when they won’t compromise any of the precious, precious commercials.
With Mountain Goats on his stage, Colbert opted for a slightly different strategy. The band did give a whirl to the new song “Sicilian Crest,” but Colbert requested an addendum. And since it’s his name on the marquee, Colbert also got to join in, pogoing around in a style that I’ve seen plenty of times in the packed crowds of Mountain Goats shows and assisting on lead vocals, adapting his usual singing voice slightly, but noticeably, in a mirror of John Darnielle’s distinctive warble. Captured and broadcast, it is the bliss of a music fan reveling in a favorite song, the type that sends a feeling of freedom coursing through the soul.