Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor, appeared on The Colbert Report last night to mark the magazine’s 100th anniversary and promote their new collection of essays from the past century, and he accomplished a rare feat: he made Stephen Colbert laugh, temporarily breaking character. After dismissing The New Republic as a “liberal rag,” Colbert proceeded to pepper his unflappable guest with a series of questions, chief among them what it actually means to be a cultural critic.
Colbert requests a critique of today’s culture in 10 words or less, to which Wieseltier coolly replies, “Too much digital, not enough critical thinking, more physical reality” (I would’ve added ‘not enough cats,’ but whatever). Colbert looks shocked as he counts out the 10 words, admitting no one’s ever successfully done that on the show before.
The highlight is when Colbert asks Wieseltier what the difference between liberals and progressives are, and Wieseltier explains that though they’re often lumped together, progressives generally fall further to the left politically than The New Republic.
“To the left of that hair?” Colbert nearly shouts back. “There’s something to the left?”
“Actually way to the left. This is centrist hair,” Wieseltier deadpans, and gets a genuine laugh out of Colbert, who needs a moment to compose himself before asking the next question (“Sell me on thinking”).
You can watch the clip from last night’s episode here:
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.