Late Night and the End of the Colbert Report: Good for Colbert, Sad for Me

11 Apr

Colbert reaching into the ether

Time to put to paper, or rather a computer screen, my long-held feelings on traditional late night shows.

In the list of cultural icons which I believe are highly overrated and long overdue for being put out to pasture in their current forms (and there is a list), traditional late night shows fall only behind Saturday Night Live (and that’s a controversial topic fit for another post entirely).

You know the late night format I’m talking about. Introduction. Monologue. First bit. First guest. Sometimes a shorter second bit. Second guest. Comedian or musical act. End. The whole thing takes about an hour.

They’re on four or five days a week, and for a full hour a night. It’s not as much that they’re bad per se, as much as the opportunity cost for the TV viewer in the current environment has changed from what it was fifteen years ago, a decade ago, or even five years ago. There are so many more options to choose from, including not just traditional TV but Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu. The bar has moved higher for making any one program worth following, meaning that while a late night show might have been worth watching in the 90s when there wasn’t much else on, there’s just so much other programming nowadays that it’s hard to justify spending 60 minutes likely to contain at least 55 minutes of mildly amusing but forgettable fluff.

While this article will be and continues to be about how I never watch any of these shows, it’s not because of the hosts. I do think the hosts are good at their jobs. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel both have a knack for turning occasional clips from their shows into Youtube sensations, and I’ve seen clips from both shows there, but that’s again kind of the point – that’s the only place I see them. I think Fallon in particular is perfect for the role of late night host. While I never enjoyed his work playing a role, how he would just laugh at his own jokes, I think he’s very good at appearing to genuinely enjoy himself.  He creates a loose environment where other famous people feel comfortable to participate in sometimes silly bits, leading to the musical interludes and other viral content that spread throughout the internet.

With Letterman’s retirement, the generational shift of late night will be complete, but there’s a new generational gap brewing. The generation of the current crop of hosts – Kimmel, Fallon, Conan, Stewart, and Colbert revere the late night format and David Letterman in particular. They grew up when late night mattered, when it meant something, when there were so few options that late night could still dominate the cultural zeitgeist in a way that’s impossible now. This includes a time when Carson simply overwhelmed any late night competition and a time when Letterman was revolutionizing the genre after Carson with a new brand of humor that doesn’t seem novel to people of my generation but was highly important and influential at the time.

To me and my generation, the traditional late night format simply doesn’t have the same cache. We’re more likely to watch Comedy Central, Adult Swim, or any of a litany of competing niche options or something we’ve dv-red or have on Netflix. Fallon has gotten off to a strong start on The Tonight Show and more power to him, but it’s hard for me not to see the genre as a dinosaur, just waiting around on the path to eventual extinction. For me, Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report are unequivocally better in every way than any of the traditional late night shows.

It’s not simply that I like the hosts, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert better than Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel, although I do. It’s that the format of the Comedy Central shows is leaps and bounds more interesting. The shows are shorter; there’s a lot less bloat. There’s no need for a monologue, which was always my least favorite part of late night shows when I used to watch a lot of Conan in particular back in high school. The shows are topical and have a point of view; although they’re slanted liberally, they take on hypocrisy and stupidity of all stripes (admittedly far more often conservative stupidity, but that aligns with my political beliefs, so it’s a plus to me). Interviews are far more likely to be topical, relevant, and insightful than the celebrity puff pieces that are general late night interviews.

The Colbert Report in particular is incomparable. I laugh more on a per episode basis watching The Colbert Report than any other show on television. His faux conservative character allows him to get away with insane and offensive jokes that other hosts might not be able to pull off, and while possibly inconsistent from a character point of view, Colbert has mastered the ability of knowing when to double down on his character and when to pull back to make the best point and to generate the most laughs.

After watching a nightly hour of Daily Show and Colbert I not only laugh far more than I do during any traditional late night program, but I actually learn about current events. I do actually make an attempt to keep up with news (I certainly do have friends who fit the stereotype of finding out all their news from The Daily Show and Colbert) but I still learn, from guests and through the narratives assembled by Stewart and Colbert to explain and clarify issues. Stephen Colbert’s super PAC adventures were the single best way I’ve ever seen to show off the obvious absurdity of our campaign finance laws.

And so I’m in mourning about the eventual end of The Colbert Report. I’m happy for Stephen Colbert, who is simply put, the best, but while I’ll certainly give his late night show much more of a try than I would with just about any other conceivable host, I have a hard time imagining it I’ll be watching it after the first week or so.

The problem isn’t simply that he’s out of character. I’ll miss the character, and the character is what makes The Colbert Report different than any other program on TV, but Colbert is funny in any form. It’s the likely dumbing down of new late night show versus his Comedy Central show. The political humor, the caustic sharpness, is what makes Colbert so great. There’s lots of funny super silly and physical humor that Stephen pulls off with aplomb but at its heart, Colbert skewers.

Unless the Late Show is changing a whole lot, he can’t do any of that there. It’s worse for the same reason network TV has trailed cable in quality and will probably do so only more in the coming years. Cable networks don’t expect to get as high ratings, so their smart play is to go for a niche demographic and really nail it down. The broadcast networks still want to keep their tents as wide as possible. If they want that, well, they can’t have a lot of the Colbert Report character that would alienate much of America. What they can have is light, good time, chummy humor that offends no one. This can still be funny, but rarely for an hour. Fallon’s good at it, but three minutes of a Fallon bit online is all I need; I don’t see any reason to spend an hour on it. With Colbert Report, the half hour is always well worthwhile.

I’ll wait, and as I’ve said, I would give more leeway to Stephen Colbert than just about to anyone in America. Unfortunately though, the smart money is on him changing his game to fit the show far more than the show changing to meet his work at the Colbert Report.

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