Entertainer hasn’t dumbed down his act at all, despite the bigger audience
Stephen Colbert ended his much-beloved fake news show The Colbert Report last December. His tenure there stretched a solid nine years, and before that, he was riotously funny on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he set the standard for what a fake news correspondent should be.
Colbert’s debut at the Late Show, which is perhaps the top job for a TV entertainer, is somewhat of an end-game job for a man with a long story to ultimate success. David Letterman retired at 68 and Colbert is 51. To imagine him in the job for the next 17 or more years isn’t much of a stretch when you consider the career of the man who came before him.
So far, Colbert’s show is a squeaky pair of sneakers to Dave’s well-worn boots. It’s new, well-designed and polished, but everyone is a little awkward and no one yet looks like they belong there. But that should be expected – Dave and Conan had long tenures of unnatural awkwardness too, and neither had the background Colbert does. When the leader of The Nation wears in his shoes a little, he’ll be an unstoppable machine of comedy and charisma.
It’s so interesting to see Stephen Colbert in an uncomfortable position. It’s a testament to the wide range of skills required to excel as a late night host that someone as talented and skillful as Colbert can’t pull it off without some live practice. It also shows how few people there really are that can do the job well.
Colbert’s insertion is the last strategic move by the late night network powers that be. By now, Jimmy Kimmel’s show has fully matured, Jimmy Fallon is thriving after replacing Leno and James Corden is doing something else after replacing cult classic Craig Ferguson. There aren’t many moves left to make in the late night game. Given Colbert’s nod to the “late night wars,” when, on his first show, he brought up a feed of Jimmy Fallon’s show and asked who his guests were that night, things are probably going to stay this way for a while. Colbert and Fallon are the least interested people in rehashing old feuds that they’re now a generation removed from.
It’s no accident that such a wide array of skills is required for this kind of job. The new entrants into the late night TV game have upped the bar, relying less on weird comedy and variety acts in favour of flash, broadly-appealing silliness and games with guests who we already know too well.
So far, Colbert seems to be splitting the difference. Sure, he’s not weird like Dave was, but he’s also not generic like Fallon. His guest variety is a massive improvement over most other shows, too. Colbert plans on featuring CEOs, authors and politicians along with the usual late night guests like actors, comedians and musicians. The mix is sure to entertain, especially as the production figures out how to get these guests interacting with each other. The new Late Show is trying to play both sides here, and once everyone gets comfortable, it will succeed in doing so.
The host’s patent narcissism also comes into the mix, and I’m glad it does. From doing his own announcements to the domed ceiling of the Ed Sullivan Theatre emblazoned with projections of his face, Colbert puts his jokey pride on everything. He also can’t keep himself away from the musical guests, last week inserting himself into a performance by Paul Simon tribute band Troubled Waters, fronted by a man who looks and sounds remarkably like Paul Simon.
Colbert can get away with the self-centred act though, and I think it’s interesting to ask ourselves why. I believe the answer lies in his past, in looking what he’s given us and what he’s gone through. We see it and we laugh, because while the over-the-top act is funny on its own, we also enjoy seeing Colbert happy and think “he deserves this,” and in doing that, we feel like we’re the ones helping him, just by laughing.