A Catholic takeover of late-night comedy

Comedian Stephen Colbert at times jokingly refers to himself as America’s most famous Catholic. But as he prepares to make the transition from cable TV star to host of CBS’s “The Late Show” next year, he will find himself competing with a full slate of faithful funnymen on the late-night talk show scene.

CBS announced in early April that Colbert, who has anchored Comedy Central’s cable news spoof “The Colbert Report” since 2005, will be the successor to “Late Show” host David Letterman upon his retirement at an undisclosed date, likely in early 2015. The news followed the debut of another Catholic, Jimmy Fallon, as the host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” in February. Fallon, who replaced the retiring Jay Leno, is a product of Catholic education who was raised in a devout Irish Catholic family.

And that’s not all: ABC’s late night talk show, “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” also features a Catholic behind the desk. Kimmel has discussed his faith off-camera and is credited with bringing a tradition of his New York Italian Catholic heritage — the annual celebration of the feast of San Gennaro, complete with a Mass and procession through the streets — to his current home of Los Angeles.

The Catholic late-night crew even extends to cable, where Irish Catholic Conan O’Brien, who briefly took over “The Tonight Show” in 2009, now hosts his talk show on TBS.

Faith foundations

Of the hosts, Colbert — both the actor himself and the satirical send-up of a cable news host he plays on The Colbert Report — is the most well-known for talking about Catholicism. His show has an “official chaplain” in Jesuit Father James Martin, and past guests have included New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Colbert even once recited the Nicene Creed on air.

In personal interviews, Colbert has talked about how his faith has played a major part in his life, including helping him through the grieving process after his father and two brothers died in a plane crash when Colbert was 10 years old. He has also discussed raising his children Catholic and has even taught religious education in his parish.

“Colbert is really the wildcard in all of this,” said Deacon Greg Kandra, who spent more than two decades as a writer and producer for CBS News and now writes the blog The Deacon’s Bench. Deacon Kandra said he is excited to see whether Colbert, who will shed the famous character he now portrays when he moves to “The Late Show,” will continue to make Catholic topics and guests a prominent component of his show.

Although Fallon hasn’t talked about the Church as much on-air, he has made it known in interviews that his Catholic faith was a big part of his upbringing. In a 2011 radio interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Fallon shared fond memories of attending daily Mass as a child and of being an altar server; Fallon even said he had discerned a possible vocation to the priesthood. Fallon has also said, however, that he no longer attends Mass regularly.

But Deacon Kandra said it is clear both hosts take their faith seriously, which will bring an interesting new dynamic to the late-night landscape.

“I think, just because of their backgrounds, Colbert and Fallon will bring a Catholic sensibility to the way they approach their shows,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.

“They have a point of view that will be a little different — more respectful, I think, toward religion, and probably toward the pope and Catholicism.”

Shifting perspective

That marks a major shift from previous late night hosts, said Jesuit Father Michael Tueth, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University who teaches a course on television comedy. Father Tueth said past late-night hosts like Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman were not known for incorporating religious topics into their shows.

“They never talked about religion, and if they did, it was always as an outside observer,” Father Tueth said.

He noted, for example, that when cases of clerical sexual abuse became a major news story, both Leno and Letterman made unfair jokes at the Church’s expense.

“They were much more cynical when talking about religion,” Father Tueth said of the previous late night hosts. “But these (new hosts) are people who won’t be able to talk that way about the Church.”

Father Tueth added that he considers it a major breakthrough to see Catholics who are open about discussing their faith taking over the late-night television lineup.

“It will be interesting to see what happens when they have other Catholics, or even people of different religions, as guests,” he said, noting that it could make for interesting conversations about faith. “That’s something you don’t really see on TV.”

Good humor

Just because the new group of hosts are Catholics doesn’t mean they always have to take their faith seriously — after all, they are still comedians. John Kelly, a veteran Catholic actor who is a representative and past vice-president of Catholics in Media Associates, said he believes it is a good thing for Catholics to be able to joke about their religion without crossing the line into being disrespectful.

“I think that is healthy,” Kelly said. “We’re all imperfect, and sometimes we do things that look a little odd or need to be made fun of, and we as Catholics should be the first ones to poke fun at (ourselves).”

Kelly said having prominent Catholics on TV who can offer a satirical and even sometimes a critical look at their own Church in a lighthearted, humorous manner will reflect well on the Church as a whole, which in turn could change some people’s perceptions of Catholics.

“They may call out the Church for something they see as ridiculous or silly, but that’s what satirists do,” he said. “These guys are very funny men and they are good at doing that, but of course they will do it with respect.”

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.