With the current round of Late-Night Musical Chairs nearly complete (THE DAILY SHOW’s Samantha Bee will finish it next month), it’s a pretty good time to survey the landscape. They say it takes about six months for long-term tv viewing patterns to set in, and Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Trevor Noah haven’t gotten there yet. The seats of Larry Wilmore, Seth Meyers and John Oliver are barely warm, and it still feels a little funny to remember that the current host of THE TONIGHT SHOW is Jimmy Fallon.
The most burning question in this real-life game of thrones was, what kind of show would Colbert conjure after dropping the faux right-wing persona he’d been playing for nine years? It turns out the “real” Colbert is a bouncy, brainy fanboy who can fawn over Robert De Niro one moment and joust with Bill Maher the next. One can’t stray too far from the venerable band-and-desk format, but now the band is the versatile, multiethnic Jon Batiste & Stay Human, which plays what its 29-year-old bandleader calls “social music,” meaning the musicians will more than likely parade into the crowd in the best New Orleans tradition. And Colbert’s writing team hasn’t lost its sly sense of just how far to push a bit of mockery.
The switch from David Letterman to Colbert was immediately visual: the band is now to the hosts’s left in the newly digitized Ed Sullivan Theater. Colbert claims that was Letterman’s suggestion, one thing Dave said he regretted from the old show. And remember, the current setup was how the stage looked for Johnny Carson. (My brother’s going to see it live later this month: I’m jealous.) But the more general shift is toward a different avenue. Old-school stand-ups like Dave, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart are gone; only Trevor Noah, who is packed with a world’s worth of characters and dialects, made his living on stand-up. The new hosts come from sketch comedy (Fallon, Meyers), improv (Colbert, Bee, Oliver), theater (Corden) and the writers’ room (Wilmore, Conan O’Brien holding forth on a new network). They can do stand-up, they just aren’t from stand-up.
The new hosts are starting to imprint their shows. After the new year and several weeks’ worth of viewer reassurance, THE DAILY SHOW changed its theme music and Noah began billboarding each episode by walking into the studio, far from the desk. He occasionally performs the entire first segment (what they call “Act I”), uh, standing up. Colbert bounds on stage at the top of his show and the billboard comes later. After the new year, the funky bass-based lead-in to Colbert’s theme music subtly yielded to Batiste’s piano; I’d imagine it was becoming too familiar.
Two years ago, late night was pretty easily compartmentalized. Leno was the popular one, winning in the ratings; Dave was the smart one, dripping with irony; and Jimmy Kimmel was the funky one, experimenting with the format to provide food for the emerging social media (remember the “music videos” for “I’m F—-ing Matt Damon/Ben Affleck”?). Now everybody wants on YouTube. Fallon may well be the king of the viral video, but his competitors are also dicing their shows to produce five-minute fodder, and Colbert is no exception. On most nights, his headline guest appears in two segments: first comes the expected interview, and then a bit of silly participation, such as three DOWNTON ABBEY stars reading their lines with American accents, or John Krasinski having a fake-vomit-off against Colbert, as his wife Emily Blunt had done the week before. The aim of these goofy stunts is to entertain not only the television audience, but also web surfers for days to come.
Then there are prerecorded “field pieces,” bits shot outside the studio, at which Colbert has always excelled, even back when he and Steve Carell pretended to be news correspondents on THE DAILY SHOW. The only others in his league are Conan and the master, Dave Letterman (who used to show historic field pieces to entertain his studio audience before the show). Colbert’s format keeps things unexpected: a juicy field interview could roll even after the first guest is gone, well into the show. Purpose: no flipping, as Larry Sanders used to say.
It’s in the classic in-studio interview segments where Colbert outdoes Fallon. His guests in his first few months have not only included the obligatory presidential candidates (Jeb Bush inaugurated the interview seat, which is probably as close as he’ll ever come to an inaugural), but Cabinet members, serious authors including Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders (who played the guitar), and interesting notables such as Michelle Dorrance, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” for her tap dancing skills. One of our great improvisers, Colbert is able to pull real emotion from his guests while entertaining. Things seem less scripted and more in the moment. As he told John Dickerson on FACE THE NATION, Colbert is aiming for “discovery, not invention.” His interview with Joe Biden, in which the two men bonded on-air over wrenching family losses, was an instant classic. He shushed a few audience members who were booing Ted Cruz: “he’s my guest.” If the bad vibes between Colbert and Bill Maher — who seemed rigid and out of place — weren’t genuine, then their interview was a master class in performance art. I’m betting they honestly don’t like each other.
Colbert and Trevor Noah still look like the new kids, but so did Conan, Jon, Jay and the Jimmys when they first started. In time their presence will feel normal. Nobody has yet deconstructed late-night like Dave did (John Oliver has added real journalism to the satirical news format, completing the circle for young viewers who actually get information that way), but it’s interesting to see the various personalities peeking out from a format that has survived since the days of Jack Paar. Meanwhile, the busiest guy in New York has to be Lorne Michaels, who produces Fallon, Meyers and SNL, all in the same building. Thus, come to think of it, saving NBC a fortune in cab fare.
8/15/16: Comedy Central said today it is pulling the plug on THE NIGHTLY SHOW as of this Thursday, making Larry Wilmore the first-late night casualty.