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.

Exit David Letterman; Enter Colbert: How Much Does Playing a Character Factor into Late-Night TV?

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When Stephen Colbert left “The Colbert Report” last fall, I pondered just how challenging it must have been for him to balance both a satirical politically conservative character and his true self. Personas on TV stick to the public consciousness as strongly as a magnetic force. The more compelling the persona is, the more people believe you’re really that character. You can see evidence of that in the history of TV from Lucille Ball, to the cast of “All in the Family”, on up to the era where characters didn’t just reside in sitcoms and into reality programming.

In the world of late-night TV, you could argue manufactured personas existed along with all the prime-time programming airing three hours earlier. The personas of talk show hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson were sometimes different than how they were in their private lives. While all talk show hosts might have had to invent a persona in order to be entertaining, that sense of playing a character seems to have become more pronounced in the David Letterman era.

Now that Letterman is officially retired from late-night TV, and all the analyses of his positive contributions in entertainment have been said, nobody ever pondered that he and Stephen Colbert might have been linked closer than we’ve realized.

Letterman’s subversive nature helped turn late-night TV on its ear 33 years ago with assumptions he was being his true self. The mystery is whether Letterman was really his own self or just playing the dumb guy taking a wrecking ball to late-night TV conventions.

Only on very rare occasions did Letterman break out of his role on-air and admit he wasn’t really that dumb. We didn’t really need to be told, because we all knew he knew exactly what he was doing and how to do it well. Plus, we eventually discovered a much more serious and intellectual man behind the veneer when he did his iconic shows post-9/11. While most talk show hosts would have done the same, it was all the more incredible to see one of the most sardonic hosts in history become one of the most articulate and thoughtful TV hosts after a national tragedy.

For many, that was the real Letterman before everything went back to normal again. In the world of Stephen Colbert, you have to wonder how he would have handled 9/11 had “The Colbert Report” been around in those days. We all know Colbert mastered the art of a complete persona mostly opposite of his own. It was also the worst possible comedic pit to be in due to setting the persona so deep that we’re still questioning how he’ll get out of it when taking over Letterman’s chair.

If Letterman had at least a sliver of a made-up persona, we still don’t know what Colbert is completely like when being himself. We’ve seen some glimpses of his real self on “The Colbert Report”, especially when doing a heartrending tribute to his mother when she passed away. Otherwise, how do we know if Colbert can completely shed his former persona when moving into the “Late Show?”

Most likely, he can’t entirely if you go by the idea that you need to create a familiar persona in order to make it in the late-night TV arena. Most viewers tuning in to Colbert’s first “Late Show” will expect him to be the same character he was on “The Colbert Report” in order to gain any immediate comedic momentum. Maybe he’ll have to form a new character if his real self can’t translate into a satirical mold. In that scenario, it may mean a repeat of the usual late-night TV path of starting slow and building strength over a period of months or years.

Also, if Colbert can’t be himself on late-night TV, what does it tell us about other late-night TV hosts that we think we know? Consider the public once thought they knew Johnny Carson when he did “The Tonight Show”, even though we found out later he wasn’t anywhere near his public persona when behind closed doors.

As far as we know, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, James Corden, and Jimmy Fallon are nothing like we know them once the camera goes off. With so many comedians feeling like they have to be “on” whenever seen in public, you can see why they have to be something other than they really are. It’s a strange dichotomy and reality that many comedians are dull and nearly lifeless when not on a stage. Then they turn on immediately when in front of an audience.

One thing we do know: Colbert is one hell of a good person in his private life based on what we’ve heard in the press. This alone seems to indicate that his real self is probably better than his previous character or any character he decides to portray. This alone improves upon what we found out about Carson and Letterman in their private lives.

Perhaps bitter, sardonic humor in late-night TV is going out with the amazing legacy of Letterman. Should the real Colbert present himself, we may discover the perfect balance of edgy hilarity with compassion and warmth for every guest entering this new late-night world.