Stephen Colbert’s First Week of “Late Show”: Will Intelligent Comedy Win or Finish Second?

Colbert and Fallon: The divide of comedy styles.
Colbert and Fallon: The divide of comedy styles.

In an alternate TV universe where Stephen Colbert is an upstart late-night TV host the public hasn’t really heard of, this semi-review of his first week on “Late Show” would be written off as too hasty. After all, how many late-night hosts in history can you think of that had red-letter first nights, first weeks, or first months? Starting from Johnny Carson on down to Jimmy Fallon, the first night of a late-night show is generally filled with awkwardness and desperately finding assured footing into a personal comedy brand that’s not quite there.

Let’s be fortunate we don’t live in the above alternate universe where Colbert is one of those relative unknowns. In our reality, he’s one of the rare ones with enough confidence to say his first night (and week) hosting the “Late Show” was arguably the most brilliant of any late-night debut in history.

We didn’t even have to contend with any rote monologue jokes about wanting to vomit or run away from nervousness. Late-night TV historians can certainly tell you even Johnny Carson did that on his first night hosting “The Tonight Show” in 1962. Perhaps the most nervous host in history was Conan O’Brien when first given NBC’s “Late Night” throne in 1993. His noticeable trembling and sweating on his debut night was physical proof of how much pressure was on his shoulders, despite gaining confidence within a month.

Colbert is an example of how any late-night host needs a strong training ground for at least five to 10 years before getting a big-time late-night gig. It’s with that in mind where you can continually say Colbert’s first week was strong, even if something unexpected happened by the second night.

Yes, when the ratings came in, Jimmy Fallon had ultimately beaten Colbert in the ratings. This continued for the rest of the week, which seemed beyond comprehension considering Colbert’s near tidal wave following.

Once you think about it a while, though, you can start to see a setup for a repeat of late-night TV history. It also says much about a major divide in America: Those who crave intelligent comedy and those who go for comedy that’s easier to digest.

We’ve seen this before along the late-night TV timeline. It goes back as far as when ABC hired Dick Cavett to compete with Johnny Carson during the late 1960s/early ‘70s. Most people looked at Cavett as being a more intellectual wit, if also sometimes exteriorly bland. Carson had a spark and appealed to Middle America, plus abhorred doing anything that made you think too hard.

We saw this divide again during the Jay Leno-David Letterman era. Leno always made his comedy middle of the road to give you the easy laugh. Letterman wasn’t really an intellectual, though his comedy forced you to turn your gears to get the full impact.

Stephen Colbert comes from perhaps the most intellectual side of comedy to ever hit the mainstream. The Colbert and Jon Stewart comedy brands are known for bringing intelligence to comedy while still dripping with hipness and irony. The problem with that is “The Colbert Report” was everyone’s favorite early evening alternative news show. In late night, audiences are likely too tired and don’t want to think nearly as hard.

This dilemma brings to light yet another American divide that looks foolish next to our more serious social divides. It still highlights how comedy has two (if not more) frames of mind, depending on demographics and maybe where you live.

Fallon winning the first ratings wars may be an indication slightly more people want the Fallon brand of comedy that’s easier to absorb. Colbert continues to knock us over with blazing topical, observational, and political comedy that’s perhaps too much to assimilate for those exhausted after a long day.

If this is really a problem for Colbert, then maybe late-night TV wasn’t the best forum for him after all. Others may argue Fallon won merely by the type of guests he had rather than comedy content. It’s hard to figure that when the monumental interview of Vice President Biden on Colbert was still beat out by Fallon in the ratings.

With probably a decade or two ahead of Colbert and Fallon battling it out for #1, will we see Colbert’s more thoughtful comedy always coming in a distant second rather than first as it deserves?

There truly seems to be a near 50-50 divide on the two comedy planes, which is the same for far too many other issues in our country. When it’s that close, the most we can hope for is just enough people finally getting Colbert’s comedy brand to bounce him to #1 when it really counts during network sweeps.

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