Can Stephen Colbert's 'Late Show' Be a Big Hit?


Stephen Colbert begins his tenure as host of the Late Show the night after Labor Day, and I’ve realized that I’m looking forward to it the way other people look forward to the first day of baseball or football season. Late-night is my sports — I follow it avidly, keep track of the stats, and root for my favorite teams. From this perspective, count me as rooting, at least until his performance proves otherwise (sports fans are fickle), for Team Colbert.

Colbert has already distinguished himself decisively from the David Letterman reign. Unlike Letterman, who had no use for self-promotion, Colbert relishes the opportunity to use this commercial tool as vehicle for funniness, making lots of videos and podcasts for his show website, giving interviews to the press, partnering with the Waze travel app, even taping amusing local-affiliate spots with some cities’ CBS news personalities. When I saw him at a panel at this summer’s Television Critics Association gathering in Los Angeles, he looked out upon the hundred-plus members of TV-criticdom and smiled a beaming smile of beneficence, as though to say, “You may follow me or you may crucify me — do with me as you will.”

Just so you know where I’m coming from: I think Letterman was the guy who brought the late-night tradition to its peak, and who also destroyed the idea of a tradition forever. Letterman absorbed the rigor of Johnny Carson, the absurdism of Steve Allen, the neurotic impulses of Jack Paar; who created a talk-show format that made everyone after him — including Conan O’Brien; Jimmy Fallon; his disciple, Jimmy Kimmel; and his Judas, Jay Leno — look as though they were living in his long shadow.

So with Colbert I see the possibility of a fresh era in late-night, some melding of the old with the new to yield a broadcast that appeals to a mass audience (not just the sizable cult he had on Comedy Central) yet offers a smart, conversation-based alternative to the fun-and-games approach of Fallon and James Corden. Colbert is also far more willing to engage in antic, crazy comedy that partakes of improvisational spontaneity that a control-freak like Letterman would never have risked.

In this area, tone is important. Unlike Letterman, Colbert has little use for irony — that once-novel, powerfully disarming rhetorical device has been run into the ground in every area of the culture, especially if you swap out the word “irony” for its 21st-century little brother, “snark.” Heaven knows we don’t need any more of that, and Colbert most likely doesn’t want to add to it.

Unlike Fallon, however — who also sees the dead-end of snark but whose solution for it has been a giggling, essentially adolescent false insistence that everyone he encounters on The Tonight Show is superior to him — Colbert sees himself as the host of a show conducted between equals, one adult speaking to another. How do I know this? From some of the more mask-dropped interviews he did on the Colbert Report (think of his sessions with Maurice Sendak and Steven Sondheim, artists he held in high regard) and from some of the interviews he’s given throughout his career and leading up to Tuesday night.

If you look at late-night history, the host he shares the mostest with is Dick Cavett, whose 1968-75 ABC Dick Cavett Show became a place where movie stars and comedians, novelists and rock stars, politicians and political extremists, mingled at a sit-down cocktail party whose host was (as is true of Colbert) a neatly dressed man with a deceptively sedate demeanor. Cavett, who started out as a joke-writer for other comedians as well as Paar’s Tonight Show — in other words, the last century’s equivalent of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show — was, like Colbert, culturally curious.

Although Carson booked his share of guests outside the realm of Establishment show-biz (he’d take an occasional risk, like inviting Ayn Rand on to glare some Objectivism at him, and Carson indulged personal interests by having astronomer Carl Sagan on frequently), Cavett was more likely to have longer, more probing interviews — not necessarily more serious; Cavett was a middle-brow who liked to think he was high-brow — and as a consequence, he lost big segments of America to Carson’s Tonight Show by not seeming slick or energetic enough.

Colbert’s opening week guest lineup is aggressively eclectic, including Jeb Bush, Stephen King, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, but he cannot afford a Cavett-style boutique approach. CBS president Les Moonves is a big-tent, let-’em-eat-NCIS autocrat, someone who offered the Late Show job to Neil Patrick Harris before Colbert. I point this out not to insult Colbert but to suggest that CBS really wants to be more competitive against Fallon than Letterman was. To that end, expect little of the patience or loyalty CBS president Moonves extended to Letterman. It’s crucially important that Colbert not become the Cavett to Fallon’s Carson. If Colbert does not put up big numbers for CBS pretty quickly, I have little doubt that Moonves will start flicking his smart-phone for the numbers of more mainstream candidates.

So, despite his perpetual wide smile (a comic device that always threatens to veer over into wacky dementia), Colbert must be feeling some pressure. Not just the self-imposed pressure that only the combination of assiduous work-horse and devout Catholic can heap upon himself, but also pressure from the outside — the expectations of his new network home; of his old audience, some of whom still don’t get the difference between the Colbert Conservative Character and the real-as-it-gets-on-TV guy he’ll be next Tuesday; and the expectations of the media, which ranges from the guaranteed respect of The New York Times to the guaranteed antagonism of Fox News.

It’s tricky new terrain to navigate, but Colbert seems up to the task. Are you as curious as I am about how Colbert will fare?

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert premieres Sept. 8 at 11:35 p.m. on CBS.