“I laugh when I’m scared, too,” said Stephen Colbert recently, after delivering an opening-monologue joke about the latest President Trump gaffe. It was a throwaway line, something said while waiting for the guffaws to die down; I doubt it was written on his cue cards. But the remark gets to the heart of Colbert’s new surge in the ratings and as a pop-cultural force: He’s benefiting (in some ways doubtless to his regret) from the public’s widespread uneasiness about the state of America since Nov. 8, 2016.
Ever since he took over David Letterman’s old Late Show spot in September 2015, Colbert has kept fine-tuning his new role. Having dropped the mask of the conservative blowhard he played on The Colbert Report, Colbert was constantly being reminded by media pundits that he wasn’t on Comedy Central anymore. He was scolded: You’re fronting a huge network franchise now, and you therefore need to broaden your audience and the scope of your comedic attack.
While every late-night host at least as far back as Jack Paar’s days hosting The Tonight Show engaged in jokes about whoever the current president might be, the gags were usually mild and equally apportioned to both Democrats and Republicans. Jay Leno did lots of Bill Clinton-is-a-horndog jokes, but also had plenty of George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole material as well. The idea was that if a host didn’t appear to be an impartial jokester, he’d lose half his audience. This was the rap Colbert encountered when The Late Show started slipping further and further behind Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show during Colbert’s first year: Why was he expressing all these opinions-wrapped-up-as-jokes that were perceived as being liberal? Wasn’t Fallon — apolitical to the point of apparent ignorance; cutting back on monologue time and adding lots of playtime games — the true future of late night?
The inauguration of Donald Trump has altered the mood of the country, and the late-night genre — the real daily newspaper of the TV medium, not bland network nightly news — always reflects that mood. There’s a hunger out there for someone with mass-audience outreach to articulate what millions are feeling, and turns out, it may not be Fallon and his beer pong — or even his “Box of Lies.”
For the week of Feb. 13, The Late Show was the No. 1 late-night talk show for all five nights — a first for Colbert. The show is up by double-digits versus its own performance last year during this same period. While The Tonight Show still leads The Late Show in the 18-49 demographic prized by advertisers, Colbert’s achievement is significant, because the dirty little secret about late-night TV is that its audience has long skewed older than is assumed — the majority of viewers for both Colbert and Fallon are over 49. Which also means that most are veterans of the voting booth, ripe for the kind of messaging Colbert is delivering.
Colbert is taking full advantage of his uptick by working hard: He came into the office on Presidents’ Day to cook up a fresh show on a night when The Tonight Show was airing a rerun. Next week, when the president delivers his first address to Congress, The Late Show will go live: Colbert not only knows where his sweet spot for comedy is, he also knows it’s best to hit that spot while the iron’s hot. (The preceding was a trademarked Tucker Mixed Metaphor).
The Ed Sullivan Theater audience is so primed for Colbert’s commentary that when the comedian recently did a joke about Gen. Michael Flynn’s communications with Russia, the crowd lifted a line from Trump’s anti-Hillary rallies and broke into a cry of “Lock him up!” Dig it: spontaneous irony. Is any more proof needed that Colbert and his audience are doing a Vulcan mind-meld?
In the old days, Johnny Carson used to have to set up a joke about someone in, say, Richard Nixon’s cabinet by explaining what position that person held. In the Trump era, viewers are so attuned to the daily news — well, maybe “punished by” is a better phrase than “attuned” — that Colbert can make a joke about the incorrect figures Trump cited about his Electoral College win margin and add, “That was the DeVos-ification of Donald Trump,” and everyone laughs, knowing that he refers to the widely despised new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
Meanwhile, what is Jimmy Fallon doing with DeVos? This:
There’s always the possibility that The Late Show will overload its hour with Trump japery to the point where the audience says, “Enough already,” and returns to playing Pictionary with Jimmy. Maybe after the Trump administration unveils its Obamacare repeal-and-replace plan. Then we’ll see who’s laughing, and with which host.
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. on CBS.