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Stephen Colbert is the nerd king of late-night TV

A new era of geekdom has dawned on late-night television.


Michelle Jaworski

Internet Culture

Posted on Oct 26, 2015   Updated on May 27, 2021, 6:17 pm CDT

Stephen Colbert is a giant nerd. 

His encyclopedic knowledge of Lord of the Rings and proclivity for comparing bad guys to Voldemort are part of what made watching him on The Daily Show and Colbert Report such a delight.

He’s part of the Marvel canon and was deemed worthy of receiving Captain America’s shield by none other than Steve Rogers himself. He’s arguably the original Star Wars fan. He made up his own superhero to walk the floors of San Diego Comic-Con.

And Peter Jackson even proclaimed he’s “never met a bigger Tolkien geek.” Colbert beat The Hobbit’s resident Tolkien expert Philippa Boyens in a quiz, and Viggo Mortensen gave him Aragorn’s sword as a sign he should run for president. Plus, he’s got a cameo in The Desolation of Smaug.

Colbert proudly wears his geeky heart on his sleeve, and anyone worried that he’d have to tone it down as the host of The Late Show should feel adequately reassured. 

In just one month, he and his writers have invaded network TV’s late night with a jovial geek-culture literacy unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Winking references and small jokes are paired with full-on segments like The Hunger Gamesstyle 2016 election coverage. Cap’s shield and Aragorn’s sword both make appearances as props on set. And perhaps best of all, Colbert is elevating geek icons like Welcome to Night Vale’s Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor to the late night stage. This is a Late Show for a new generation—a generation eager to watch our nerdy overlord conquer an even bigger tract of the TV landscape. 

In the hands of another host, the refreshed, culture-savvy format of The Late Show might feel like a pandering attempt to reach a younger audience. But CBS chose well: Colbert is one of us, and all of the nerding out over The Force Awakens is genuine. 

Here are just a few references from the start of Colbert’s freshman run on The Late Show that should make fans excited for the future. 

1) Star Wars

We already knew that Colbert was a big Star Wars fan, but with a movie on the way and a new show, he has a bigger platform to nitpick. He was into Star Wars before everyone, having seen it before it was released in theaters in 1977. The fact that the U.K. will get it a day before the U.S.? He can’t stand it.

A few weeks later, Colbert looked at the advancement of Star Wars robotics. One poor cyborg suffered abuse by dodgeball from the very people who built it, prompting Colbert to wonder if it had claimed one of the prequels was a better film.

2) Game of Thrones and Harry Potter

Donald Trump seems to have a thing for building and defending giant walls—you know, kind of like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. So Colbert can be forgiven for thinking there would be Jon Snow spoilers coming out of the second GOP debate. 

Colbert then flashed his geek badge a second time in the same segment, invoking Harry Potter‘s greatest enemy while trying to figure out Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign ad. 

3) Star Trek

As he looked back to the second (never ending) GOP debate, Colbert jokingly described Carly Fiorina as “former Hewlett Packard CEO and future Starfleet captain,” and then proceeded to explain why he wouldn’t want to be a Romulan meeting her in the neutral zone.

4) Captain America

We know Colbert has Captain America’s shield—made from nearly indestructible Vibranium—but how well does it hold up against a speeding tennis ball? He used the shield to face off against tennis star Novak Djokovic to find out.

5) Satanic lit

On Colbert’s first episode, he instantly dashed any fears that he’d have to water down his humor for a mainstream audience. In a lengthy and hyper-detailed monologue, he explained he got the Late Show job by swearing a blood oath to a snake-headed Assyrian fire-god, who would now make him do unspeakable things (most of which seemed to involve selling Sabra hummus). This offering pleased the reptilian deity.

6) The Hunger Games trilogy

Whenever a presidential candidate suspends his or her campaign, Colbert dresses up like Caesar Flickerman, the host of the Hunger Games in the books and films, and pays tribute. Mockingjayly, of course.

So far he’s only done this for the Republican candidates, but we hope he keeps it up until there’s only two candidates left to fight to the death—err, we mean Election Day.

7) Multiple fandoms at once

In a recent segment, Colbert finally tackled a question that’s been asked ever since he mockingly played a conservative pundit on The Colbert Report: Who is the real Stephen Colbert? Before settling down to take the Myers-Briggs test, he invokes Benedict Cumberbatch, the royal family, and Game of Thrones in the same breath.

8) No Man’s Sky

With YouTube gamer PewDiePie and Hello Games’s Sean Murray already appearing on the show, Colbert is quickly becoming a big advocate for video games on late-night TV. Murray showed Colbert a demo of No Man’s Sky—a highly anticipated space exploration game that’s procedurally generated. Colbert gets alien life and star systems named after him, cracks a joke about an X-Wing fighter, and declares Murray a god. All in a day’s work.

9) Guardians of the Galaxy

Colbert loves Morgan Freeman’s voice as much as anyone else, so he indulged the actor to read some famous lines from movies over the years—including Groot’s most famous (and only) phrase.

10) The Legend of Zelda

Who else would be able to get an entire orchestra on his stage to play video game music?

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And proving that it’s not just Colbert who’s excited to nerd it up, The Late Show band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, also performed some of the iconic music from The Legend of Zelda backstage.

11) The Lord of the Rings

Elijah Wood, who’s indulged Colbert in Lord of the Rings talk before, bestowed Colbert with a ring that was very precious to him.

12) Welcome to Night Vale

Cecil Baldwin’s Welcome to Night Vale character Cecil Palmer performed the community calendar for The Late Show audience, merging the popular podcast’s old-style radio format with TV in a delightfully weird and wonderful way.

Illustration by Bruno Moraes

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*First Published: Oct 26, 2015, 11:00 am CDT