Stephen Colbert has been running The Late Show for less than two weeks, and already he's shown how he plans to transform his late-night television gig. The host may have shed his uber-conservative persona, but he still has the chops to ask smart tough questions to his political guests. The latest politician in the hot seat was Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, and things got weird Monday as Cruz got booed on The Late Show during a tense debate over gay marriage.
Cruz was laying out the key pillars of his platform — "live within our means, stop bankrupting our kids and grandkids, and follow the Constitution" — when Colbert interrupted, "And no gay marriage," taking a punch at Cruz's continued campaign against the Supreme Court's landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Cruz's insistence that the issue of gay marriage should have been left to the states elicited boos from the audience. It's always hard to win over a crowd, but you know things have taken a bad turn when you're being booed on TV.
While some hosts might have taken the opportunity to make a joke, Colbert went a different route. Colbert stepped in, saying, "Guys, however you feel, he's my guest so please don't boo him." Folks, just another late-night show, this ain't. (The unraveling starts at 3:09.)
Colbert also challenged Cruz's reverence for Ronald Reagan and his desire to capture the support of Reagan Democrats, aka Democrats who voted Republican during the 1980 and 1984 elections. The comedian asked Cruz whether he would agree with Reagan's policies that would have a difficult time finding a home in today's Republican Party. "Reagan raised taxes, OK," Colbert said. "Reagan actually had an amnesty program for illegal immigrants. Neither of those things would allow Reagan to be elected today. So to what level can you truly emulate Ronald Reagan?"
Colbert's line of questioning appeared to surprise Cruz because rarely do politicians expect to be grilled on such serious issues on late-night television, a time typically better reserved for jokes about ice cream flavors and songs about dogs. But the reality is Cruz is a bit of a cheesy stiff when it comes to light-hearted banter, so the more serious Colbert was actually a better opportunity for the Republican to show off than, say, Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.
But Cruz failed to deliver even when it came to real talk about policies, and you walked away from the stunning interview with the sense that Cruz, who's angling to pick up Scott Walker's supporters now that the Wisconsin governor is out of the race, won't be far behind. And it's not the first time Cruz has stumbled in late-night. His last after-hours appearance was with Seth Meyers back in March, and things got super awkward as he addressed how he accidentally made a 3-year-old girl believe the "whole world is on fire" with his hyperbolic criticism of President Obama's foreign policy. It's also not the first time Cruz has been booed.
Regardless of how you feel about Cruz, the big takeaway is that Colbert is quickly becoming a formidable voice in late-night television particularly when it comes to politics and current events. Candidates, beware.