Is Stephen Colbert Too Smart For Late Night TV?

When Stephen Colbert inherited the “Late Show” franchise from David Letterman, the critics generally agreed to reserve judgment until the show had had enough time to evolve into what it would eventually become.

Two months and approximately 40 shows later, it seems clear that it doesn’t need time to evolve.  It’s already pretty great, having arrived fully formed after months of planning by Colbert and his staff.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” is how similar it is to “The Colbert Report,” his previous outing on Comedy Central.  Yes, the budget is bigger, it’s twice as long, and Colbert no longer plays an airhead conservative character — but it’s the same basic show, revolving around Colbert’s humorous riffs on subjects that interest him (mostly politics and the news), his interviews with a diverse array of guests, and an eclectic mix of musical guests.

Late-night television has become so encrusted with tradition that it’s impossible to vary a talk show too much beyond the standard man-behind-the-desk format.  Colbert’s major innovation is to return the late-night format to what it was before Johnny Carson.  The joke-punchline-joke-punchline monologue is out.  The new monologue is a three-minute extended meditation on an issue of the day.  Also out are silly recurring bits — Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent or Letterman’s urban adventures with Rupert Jee Indeed, Colbert never ventures outside the studio and has not introduced any signature characters.

Perhaps the biggest throwback to the pre-Carson late-night show of Jack Paar and Steve Allen is the guest list.  There’s a sense that here you can experience the huge smorgasbord of American culture.  Yes, there are plenty of stars from CBS TV series and upcoming moves, but at least Colbert engages them intelligently.  When Carey Mulligan turned up to plug her movie “Suffragette,” the ensuing conversation focused on the actual substance of the movie — the womens’ suffrage movement in Great Britain — and not an irrelevant story about Mulligan’s latest vacation.

Colbert seems to have made a special effort to attract high tech entrepreneurs: guys like Tesla’s Elon Musk, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Uber’s Travis Kalanick.  It’s an election year, so politicians have also featured heavily on the show, including five presidential candidates so far.  Colbert himself is clearly politically liberal but he’s provided a fair platform for Republican candidates too, going so far as to chide his audience when they booed an answer by Ted Cruz.  He even made Donald Trump seem human, which I would not have thought possible.  And of course he famously and sensitively interviewed Vice President Joe Biden on the death of his son Beau.

Culturally the musical guests have ranged from country (Toby Keith) to classical (Misty Copeland dancing to Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 2 with Yo-Yo Ma) to indie rock (Alabama Shakes). The show has also welcomed high-end authors like Jonathan Franzen and Stacy Schiff.

Through it all, Colbert has insisted that “Late Show” is a comedy show first, and he definitely works hard to maintain high spirits.  He enters each show to the buoyant music of his band leader Jon Batiste, sometimes high-kicking (see gif above for proof) and sometimes just waving and grinning.  I am especially inspirited by Batiste’s intro, which is the greatest thematic celebration of New York City since the early days of “Saturday Night Live.”

Another retro feature of “The Late Show” is that Colbert appears to eschew social-media clickbait.  Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have excelled at producing funny bite-sized bits that go viral on Facebook and Twitter.  Colbert either hasn’t tried or hasn’t succeeded in mastering the social media game. ListenFirst Media, which measures television-based social and digital activity through its Digital Audience Rating-TV metric, reports that with a DAR-TV of 45.9 million, Colbert was a distant fourth digitally among late-night shows during the month of October, well behind Fallon (a DAR-TV of 214.5 million) and Kimmel (a DAR-TV of 115.3 million), and even behind Conan O’Brien (a DAR-TV of 50.3 million).

Colbert is doing better in traditional ratings.  According to Nielsen, over the first seven weeks, Fallon maintained his dominant position, with an average of 3.5 million nightly viewers, while Colbert was runner-up, with 3.0 million viewers. Kimmel trailed at 2.3 million viewers.  These are live/same day numbers and don’t account for people like me who record and watch the next day or later. (By the way, what’s interesting about these Nielsen numbers is that only a third of the audience is in the 18-49 demographic, meaning that two-thirds of live late-night viewing is either from teenagers or the AARP-eligible.)

As much as I love Colbert on “The Late Show,” I worry that he might be too brainy.  When discussing memoir-writing with Elvis Costello, he casually dropped a quote from the late David Carr.  How many people in the audience could identify Carr as a New York Times media columnist, or understand the reference?  That’s a very small thing, but it shows that Colbert is operating on a much higher plane than most of us.

Frankly, I like it that Colbert doesn’t talk down to his audience and assumes we’ll enjoy listening to Yo-Yo Ma as well as Darlene Love.  Nielsen’s ratings roll in every day, so we’ll know soon enough whether this experiment in intelligent programming will pay off in the long term.

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