Is Stephen Colbert Too Smart For Late Night?

When Stephen Colbert inherited the “Late Show” franchise from David Letterman, the critics generally agreed to reserve judgment until the show had had enough time to evolve into what it would eventually become. 

Two months and approximately 40 shows later, it seems clear that it doesn’t need time to evolve.  It’s already pretty great, having arrived fully formed after months of planning by Colbert and his staff.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” is how similar it is to “The Colbert Report,” his previous outing on Comedy Central.  Yes, the budget is bigger, it’s twice as long, and Colbert no longer plays an airhead conservative character -- but it’s the same basic show, revolving around Colbert’s humorous riffs on subjects that interest him (mostly politics and the news), his interviews with a diverse array of guests, and an eclectic mix of musical guests.



Late-night television has become so encrusted with tradition that it’s impossible to vary a talk show too much beyond the standard man-behind-the-desk format.  Colbert’s major innovation is to return the late-night format to what it was before Johnny Carson.  The joke-punchline-joke-punchline monologue is out.  The new monologue is a three-minute extended meditation on an issue of the day.  Also out are silly recurring bits -- Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent or Letterman’s urban adventures with Rupert Jee.  Indeed, Colbert never ventures outside the studio and has not introduced any signature characters.

Perhaps the biggest throwback to the pre-Carson late-night show of Jack Paar and Steve Allen is the guest list.  There’s a sense that here you can experience the huge smorgasbord of American culture.  Yes, there are plenty of stars from CBS TV series and upcoming moves, but at least Colbert engages them intelligently.  When Carey Mulligan turned up to plug her movie “Suffragette,” the ensuing conversation focused on the actual substance of the movie -- the womens’ suffrage movement in Great Britain -- and not an irrelevant story about Mulligan’s latest vacation.

Colbert seems to have made a special effort to attract high tech entrepreneurs: guys like Tesla’s Elon Musk, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Uber’s Travis Kalanick.  It’s an election year, so politicians have also featured heavily on the show, including five presidential candidates so far.  Colbert himself is clearly politically liberal but he’s provided a fair platform for Republican candidates too, going so far as to chide his audience when they booed an answer by Ted Cruz.  He even made Donald Trump seem human, which I would not have thought possible.  And of course he famously and sensitively interviewed Vice President Joe Biden on the death of his son Beau.

Culturally the musical guests have ranged from country (Toby Keith) to classical (Misty Copeland dancing to Bach's "Cello Suite No. 2" with Yo-Yo Ma) to indie rock (Alabama Shakes). The show has also welcomed high-end authors like Jonathan Franzen and Stacy Schiff.

Through it all, Colbert has insisted that “Late Show” is a comedy show first, and he definitely works hard to maintain high spirits.  He enters each show to the buoyant music of his band leader Jon Batiste, sometimes high-kicking and sometimes just waving and grinning.  I am especially inspirited by Batiste’s intro, which is the greatest thematic celebration of New York City since the early days of “Saturday Night Live.” 

Another retro feature of “The Late Show” is that Colbert appears to eschew social-media clickbait.  Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have excelled at producing funny bite-sized bits that go viral on Facebook and Twitter.  Colbert either hasn’t tried or hasn’t succeeded in mastering the social media game. ListenFirst Media, which measures television-based social and digital activity through its Digital Audience Rating-TV metric, reports that with a DAR-TV of 45.9 million, Colbert was a distant fourth digitally among late-night shows during the month of October, well behind Fallon (a DAR-TV of 214.5 million) and Kimmel (a DAR-TV of 115.3 million), and even behind Conan O’Brien (a DAR-TV of 50.3 million).

Colbert is doing better in traditional ratings.  According to Nielsen, over the first seven weeks, Fallon maintained his dominant position, with an average of 3.5 million nightly viewers, while Colbert was runner-up, with 3.0 million viewers. Kimmel trailed at 2.3 million viewers.  These are live/same day numbers and don’t account for people like me who record and watch the next day or later. (By the way, what’s interesting about these Nielsen numbers is that only a third of the audience is in the 18-49 demographic, meaning that two-thirds of live late-night viewing is either from teenagers or the AARP-eligible.)

As much as I love Colbert on “The Late Show,” I worry that he might be too brainy.  When discussing memoir-writing with Elvis Costello, he casually dropped a quote from the late David Carr.  How many people in the audience could identify Carr as a New York Times media columnist, or understand the reference?  That’s a very small thing, but it shows that Colbert is operating on a much higher plane than most of us.

Frankly, I like it that Colbert doesn’t talk down to his audience and assumes we’ll enjoy listening to Yo-Yo Ma as well as Darlene Love.  Nielsen’s ratings roll in every day, so we’ll know soon enough whether this experiment in intelligent programming will pay off in the long term.

3 comments about "Is Stephen Colbert Too Smart For Late Night?".
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  1. David Shank from Shank Public Relations Counselors, November 10, 2015 at 2:51 p.m.

    Gary, interesting observations and I agree with you.  Back in the day, although I loved Carson's schtick, I shifted over to the Dick Cavett Show (even as a kid in high school, I got his dry wit.) Your piece on Colbert reminded me of Cavett in many ways: intelligent, sometimes self-deprecating, able to draw good interviews out of dumb guests, and making the best of interviews even when guests were unbelievably stoned! I had forgotten Cavett's qualities until I saw the PBS retro-doc on how Cavett was pulled into the Watergate fiasco.  His show soon became a carousel of comment by all the players.  It was fascinating to watch how he handled that mess.

    David Shank
    Shank Public Relations Counselors

  2. Chuck Hildebrandt from Self, November 10, 2015 at 8:48 p.m.

    I don't think Colbert is too intelligent for his audience.  After all, he brought an audience over from Comedy Central with him, and he is firmly ensconsed in second place, losing only to a guy who has the premier name in late night shows.  I think what Colbert will do is to weed out the Stupid Pet Trick people while bringing an entirely new culturally-aware viewer who wasn;t watchng Big Network late night before he came on.  But even if he doesn't catch up in total viewers to Fallon, I think it's a safe bet that he will draw way higher 18-49 CPMs for his show from advertisers who will gladly pay for him and nobody else.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, November 11, 2015 at 9:47 a.m.

    Chuck, I suspect that Colbert may not fit in as soothly with CBS as some think. As for bringing his Comedy Central faithful with him, so far, he's playing to an older audience, mainly, just as Letterman did at the end of his run. Of course, there are some 18-34s, but not many of them on a night by night basis. How many of these were Colbert's old Comedy Central fans is dificult to assess, but it may be that Colbert needs to reshape his guest selections and other aspects of his performance  towards a more mainstream orientation if he wants to win in the ratings. I realize that a certain type of advertiser will want a Colbert image rub-off at any price---no problem with that---but how many of these can there be?

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