There’s been some talk in recent weeks, since CBS installed a showrunner on The Late Show, that Stephen Colbert has struggled to set himself apart from the late-night competition. The beloved host of The Colbert Report has an identity problem. In comments with the New York Times, Chelsea Handler also pointed to one of the problems with Colbert’s The Late Show: “He didn’t go in and make a different show. He’s just following in the footsteps of someone else.” Colbert hasn’t figured out what the show should be, and while it’s competitive in the ratings, it’s trailing behind in the metric that matters most in 2016: YouTube views.
All the other late-night hosts have created signature segments that do well the next morning on the internet, but Colbert hasn’t yet found his niche. He wants to be something akin to The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, but he’s trapped between Letterman and The Colbert Report. The man needs a huge viral hit to help distinguish his show, because — for better or worse — virality is what is driving late night now.
As Colbert continues to try and figure it out, let’s take a moment to look back on the most important viral videos in late-night history, the ones that established the hosts and helped to sculpt late night into what it has become.
10. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart: New York Pizza Vs. Chicago Pizza
Every other video on the list below involves celebrities, music and/or important social or political issues, but Jon Stewart’s defense of New York pizza on The Daily Show is the best food rant in television history, five minutes that decides the New York vs. Chicago Pizza debate once and for all. If anyone ever suggests to you that Chicago Style pizza is better, shut them down for all time with this.
9. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Donald Trump
John Oliver was adamant about not discussing the 2016 American political election at length until late February of this year, reasoning that he wouldn’t talk about a political election until we were at least in the same year as the election. When he finally did, however, he unloaded 21 minutes of pent-up, hilarious rage on Donald Trump. The assault didn’t slow Trump down, but it did validate the feelings of millions of voters opposed to the GOP nominee. It also become the most popular viral video of all time not only for Last Week Tonight, but for HBO, scoring over 25 million views.
8. Stewart, Colbert, Conan Fighting
During the writers’ strike of 2008, Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart came up with their own content by engaging in a mock fight that crossed into all three shows. It was a funny and creative way to deal with the strike, but more importantly, it demonstrated that the new generation of late-night hosts were above the late-night wars of the Leno and Letterman years. They were friends, and friendly competitors. They understood that time-slot competition wasn’t nearly as important as it once was, and that they could actually work together and support one each other. That spirit of friendship has carried over into the introduction of every new late-night host since.
7. Jimmy Fallon: Lip Sync Battle, Emma Stone
Fallon has had a lot of success making videos with Justin Timberlake, but his lip-sync battle segments enabled him to grab huge viral numbers with other celebrities, as well. Emma Stone wasn’t his first lip-sync competitor, but she’s been the most popular (70 million views so far, and counting), and one of the reasons this late-night segment was spun off into its own show, Lip Sync Battle on Spike, which is also far more popular on YouTube than it is in the Nielsen ratings.
6. James Corden: Adele’s Carpool Karaoke
Excluding Carson Daly, James Corden’s The Late Late Show regularly comes in last place in the ratings. But Corden is a huge hit on YouTube. His YouTube channel crossed one billion viewers in a little more than a year, thanks primarily to his “Carpool Karaoke” segments, the most popular of which features Adele and has been seen nearly 100 million times already, more than any other video late-video currently on YouTube. Maybe no one watches Corden’s show on their television sets, but Corden is a hugely successful viral late-night host.
5. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on the Charleston Shootings
Jon Stewart’s off-the-cuff remarks to open The Daily Show after the Charleston, S.C. shooting was not designed to go viral, but it did, demonstrating that it wasn’t necessary to have celebrities or a gimmick to create an impression. Sometimes, we respond the most to heartfelt anger, frustration, and sadness. With that video, Stewart cut through the political bullsh*t that surrounds mass shootings, and he framed the issue as one of racism and domestic terrorism. That video was hugely instrumental in a conversation this country very much needed to have about Confederate flags and racist iconography, and it helped pave the way for removal of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse.
4. Jimmy Kimmel Live!: Mean Tweets
Kimmel’s idea to have celebrities read mean things about themselves was brilliant in it simplicity and accomplished three things: It provided cheap, funny material; it exposed the nastiness of social media; and it had a humanizing effect on the celebrities, allowing them to demonstrate that they didn’t take themselves too seriously. Mean Tweets has since inspired dozens of installments and copycats all over the internet, and on Kimmel, the segment never seems to go stale.
3. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Net Neutrality
John Oliver’s tirade on the conflicts of interest involved in net neutrality laws signaled to the world that his show had not only arrived, but that it wasn’t like anything else in the late-night landscape: Oliver would tackle complicated issues, at length, with an eye toward informing his audience as much as entertaining them. He would also call his audience to action, so much so in this case that his monologue helped to crash the FCC website. Most importantly, the video also demonstrated that late-night could go viral with serious material, as well.
2. Late Night With Jimmy Fallon: History of Rap #1
Already a big viral presence on Late Night, Fallon’s first History of Rap collaboration with Justin Timberlake set him apart from the rest of his late-night competition in 2010 as the host best equipped to handle the internet age. Six years (and five more “History of Rap” collaborations) later, Fallon is the King of late night television not only in ratings, but in terms of virality, too.
1. Jimmy Kimmel Live!: F*cking Matt Damon
There had been a smattering of other late-night videos that had some viral success, but Jimmy Kimmel’s “F*cking Matt Damon” was really the one that transformed late-night television from chat shows with a monologue into a vehicle for viral material. “F*cking Matt Damon” did for the rest of late night what Lonely Island’s Digital shorts did for Saturday Night Live: Turned them into network and YouTube sensations.