Opinion

Will the Real Stephen Colbert Please Stand Up?

Stephen Colbert addressing a local Yelp review controversy on 'Only In Monroe'
Stephen Colbert addressing a local Yelp review controversy on ‘Only In Monroe’ (all screenshots via YouTube)

In preparation for his debut on CBS’s The Late Show in September, Stephen Colbert kept his hosting skills sharp by serving as guest host on Monroe, Michigan’s public access talk show Only In Monroe. A video of the 41-minute episode was posted to Colbert’s YouTube page on Wednesday.

Internet commenters immediately hailed it as “classic” Colbert. Yet the satirical political reporter told the New York Times that he would give up his tongue-in-cheek shtick when he assumed his role at The Late Show. Instead, he would be more “himself.” If his stint on Only In Monroe is any indication of what’s to come, we can only assume that what we see in it is something like the “real” Colbert.

The set of Only In Monroe is reassuringly familiar, with its unmistakable public access aesthetic of harsh lighting, fake potted plants, and generic corporate furniture from circa 1995. Every small-town studio looks like this, so even if we’re not from Monroe, we feel like we know it. Because we know it, we assume that it’s real. In case you were worried, Monroe is indeed real, which the station’s commercials confirm. Just a short drive from Detroit, the town is touted as “authentic” with a “real downtown” where you can “take a break and slow down, have coffee.”

Stephen Colbert interviewing 'Only In Monroe' co-hosts Michelle Bowman and Kaye Lani Rae Rafko Wilson
Stephen Colbert interviewing ‘Only In Monroe’ co-hosts Michelle Bowman and Kaye Lani Rae Rafko Wilson

As stand-in host, Colbert makes Only In Monroe’s regular co-hosts, Michelle Bowman and Kaye Lani Rae Rafko Wilson, the celebrity guests for the evening. That’s not to say that these women aren’t generally regarded as such — they’re well known in Monroe, and Colbert has no shortage of information on them. He takes Bowman to task on her infamous claim that she can paint their nails just about anywhere, and he probes Wilson on what kind of power and responsibility came with being Miss America 1988.

After reading scathing Yelp! reviews of an area watering hole, Colbert welcomes another local celebrity — Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem. He seems to know less about the internationally acclaimed rapper than he did about his earlier guests. It’s unclear whether or not Mathers is legitimately offended by his interviewer’s lack of information, or if he is simply playing along with a predetermined act. Nevertheless, Colbert flatly states: “If you’re a bigger deal than I know about, I want to know who you are. I just don’t know who you are.”

The way Colbert treats his respective guests suggests that celebrity is relative and reality is subjective, lessons Andy Warhol taught us all too well with his art and his own deadpan talk show. What confers celebrity status isn’t talent or wealth, but media visibility. In Monroe, Michigan, Bowman and Wilson are just as visible as Eminem, if not more so. But in the proliferation of media images, is the essence of the person behind the celebrity compromised?

Stephen Colbert interviewing Eminem on 'Only In Monroe'
Stephen Colbert interviewing Eminem on ‘Only In Monroe’

Colbert seems to think so. He asks Mathers, in light of the lyrics to the rapper’s latest song “Phenomenal,” “do you have to be a monster to be phenomenal?” He wraps up by mentioning that he has a new project starting in the fall, and that while he’d like to be successful, he wonders if it’s possible to do so without losing a sense of humanity. The show concludes with Colbert and Mathers staring meaningfully into the cameras while doing the Miss America wave.

If this is just another persona in a long line of performative stints by Colbert, perhaps the only thing it reveals is that even he doesn’t know how to be “himself” anymore. In an era when we’re increasingly defined by our media presence, maybe we’re all just performing “ourselves.”

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