Is God boosting Stephen Colbert's ratings?
The Late Show host's rise in popularity has followed an emphasis on religious commentary and on-air spiritual conversations
Before 2017, Jimmy Fallon dominated Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel in the late night talk show ratings wars. But Colbert has since emerged as the victor, besting his rivals in overall viewership for the recently concluded 2016-2017 season. Colbert ended the September-to-May season with an average of 3.19 million nightly viewers, compared to Fallon's 3.17 million and Kimmel's 2.2 million. (The previous season, Fallon absolutely crushed his competitors.)
Given that Colbert's rise started the week of President Trump's inauguration, publications from Variety to Newsweek have credited the CBS comic's newfound popularity to his stinging criticisms of the president. There's obviously truth to this. Colbert routinely hammers Trump — far more often and usually far more effectively than either Fallon or Kimmel. Many liberal viewers love Colbert for this. But there's more to his rise than just throwing red meat to throngs of Trump-hating viewers.
I'm talking about God.
Colbert is religious. For the past decade, he has been one of the most unashamed Catholics on television. In 2007, he talked to NPR's Terry Gross about how he explained complex theological beliefs about matters like God and the afterlife to his children. His wildly popular Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, regularly featured religion segments. He debated the divinity of Jesus with religious scholar and Jesus, Interrupted author Bart Ehrman and discussed the pope with a Jesuit priest.
However, when Colbert took over David Letterman's historic show in September 2015, the God talk barely followed Colbert to his new home at CBS. Sure, a month in, he did ask Oprah to share her favorite Bible verses.
And in February 2016, Colbert offered televangelist Joel Osteen a chance to explain his theology. But that was basically it.
This changed around the same time that Trump won the presidency. On Nov. 17, less than two weeks after the election, Colbert brazenly attempted to convert noted atheist Bill Maher during the show.
"The door is always open. Golden ticket, right before you," Colbert said. "All you have to do is humble yourself before the presence of the Lord and admit there are things greater than you in the universe that you do not understand. Take Pascal's wager. If you're wrong, you're an idiot, but if I'm right, you're going to hell."
Maher wasn't having it and shot back: "I do admit there are things in the universe I don't understand, but my response to that is not to just make up silly stories, or to believe intellectually embarrassing myths from the Bronze Age, but you believe whatever you want to."
In January of this year, Andrew Garfield visited the Late Show, and the result was like a primer from a college religion course. The host and actor talked about Jesus, spiritual warfare, the afterlife, the religious discipline of fasting, and Ignatian spiritual practices.
Colbert then took the spiritual-speak to a whole new level in February, when he debated atheist comedian Ricky Gervais on the existence of God. The exchange went viral, receiving more than 3.5 million views on YouTube alone.
When Gervais returned to the Late Show stage in May, the pair revisited their previous exchange and discussed the existence of hell. The less contentious chat still garnered more than 1.5 million YouTube views.
In May, Colbert felt uneasy about a recent religious liberty executive order signed by President Trump. In a provocative twist, the host took up the matter with the Creator Himself, who appeared on the studio ceiling. "I'm not a big fan of executive orders — they don't work," God told Colbert. "I tried 10 of them once, and everyone's still coveting their neighbor's wife and taking my name in vain."
Last month, Colbert brought "God" back to discuss what He thinks about fidget spinners. In his setup for the segment, the host gave a concise but rather poignant explanation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
Try to imagine either Fallon or Kimmel doing anything remotely similar to any of this on air. It's impossible.
Now, all of this could be mere coincidence. There is no definitive and direct connection between Colbert's rising ratings and his religious vocalizing.
That said, more than 70 percent of Americans still claim to be Christian, according to Pew Research, and more than half of Americans say religion is "very important" to them. Even among the religiously unaffiliated, many still claim to be spiritual, believe in a God or higher power, and pray regularly.
These religious Americans are hungry for entertainment that acknowledges their faith. Television miniseries like Mark Burnett's The Bible, The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, and Bill O'Reilly's Killing Jesus have set broadcast records. Faith films such as The Shack and Heaven is For Real are attracting top-tier actors and slaying at the box office. Heck, even Broadway has had something of a religious revival.
Is it really so crazy to think that Colbert is benefiting from a God bump?
Surely, anti-Trump sentiments explain much of Colbert's ascendency. But it seems at least as plausible that Colbert's willingness to wrestle with deep religious questions — and to do so with levity — is wooing religious viewers to his program.
Of course, if you're Colbert it doesn't really matter from whence the blessings came. Whether political controversy or religious curiosity is driving the trend, Colbert is surely thanking the Good Lord. Hallelujah and amen.