Stephen Colbert is having a bad week. I think it’s fair to say this is one of the worst weeks we’ve seen a late night talk show host have since the Conan O’Brien The Tonight Show fiasco in 2010. This is not to say things are just going swimmingly everywhere else – Trevor Noah is still experiencing lackluster ratings and has yet to turn his The Daily Show into a cultural force – but the strange series of events that has followed Colbert around this week is, well, unusual.
Where to start…
1. Well, first, Colbert lost longtime producer Meredith Bennett, who had been with him since The Colbert Report. As Deadline reported, when new showrunner Chris Licht was hired, it was expressly stated this wouldn’t affect Bennett’s position – this turned out not to be true.
2. Then James Corden goes on Howard Stern’s radio show and is asked about potentially replacing Colbert as the host of The Late Show. Corden handled this about as well as one can in a situation like that, saying, “never gonna happen,” but now that’s out there. It’s in people’s heads that this could be a possibility. Are there rumors that this has been discussed internally at CBS? Well, yes – which is probably why Stern brought it up in the first place. But substantiated rumors or not, now the host of The Late Late Show had to issue a denial. People only ask this kind of thing when blood is in the water. Would Seth Meyers be a good host of The Tonight Show? Yes. Are people asking him if he’s taking over for Jimmy Fallon anytime soon? They are not.
If egos and network embarrassment weren’t a factor, switching Colbert and Corden actually makes some sense. Corden hosts the more carnival-type atmospheric show – which has a similar vibe to Fallon – which seems to work well in the 11:35 time slot (and on the internet). Not to mention that Corden is in Los Angeles and he wouldn’t have to directly compete with the New York City-based Fallon for guests, like Colbert does. (If you’ve paid attention to Colbert’s guests at all in the last few months, Colbert does not often win this battle with Fallon.)
Colbert at 12:35 could allow Colbert to just be himself again and book the intellectuals that he likes to talk with. One of Colbert’s biggest problems is he just looks so damn uncomfortable playing the role of an 11:35 p.m. late night host. People say he was playing a character on The Colbert Report? The truth is, he’s playing a character right now, and he’s not very good at it.
3. I had heard some rumors a few months ago that The Late Show was trying to figure out a way to incorporate executive producer Jon Stewart into the show. How far this idea actually got, I have no idea, but this was before Chris Licht was hired. And when I first heard this, it was still at a time when something like this would work without seeming desperate. Now, yeah, Colbert would get hammered for doing something like this. It would be seen as desperate.
Then this past Monday, Jon Stewart winds up appearing on Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal. It’s a fun cameo. It doesn’t mean anything in terms of Colbert’s show, but it just has the appearance of Stewart kind of, sort of endorsing Bee’s show when Colbert is having this kind of week. Of course, again, that’s not what is happening. (And I will repeat, Stewart is an executive producer on The Late Show.) It’s just not the best timing.
4. I think at this point it’s a safe bet to assume that David Letterman isn’t the biggest fan of Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. At the very least, he has no opinion. But David Letterman has never been the type of person to ever hold back when he wants to praise another comedian. For instance, we know exactly how he feels about Amy Schumer and Billy Eichner. When he’s ever asked about Colbert, he always says something along the lines of, “I had nothing to do with that.”
A clip of an upcoming interview with Letterman by Tom Brokaw surfaced and Letterman expanded on this. We already knew Letterman had no input on his replacement, but added, unprompted, “And I don’t know why they didn’t give my show to a woman.” (The context of that quote is a little hard to convey, so I will add it was said in the tone of, “It makes no sense to me they didn’t give my show to a woman.”)
Can Colbert recover from all this? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. No one is questioning Colbert’s talent, but I do wonder if this is the best fit or avenue for his talent. He just seems a little lost. Right after Licht took over, some small changes were made to make the show immediately better, like ditching the cold open monologue. But I’ve been watching a lot lately and the same old problems persist: disjointed and dated comedy segments, and Colbert’s lack of interest in guests he doesn’t care about.
I’m going to write something that’s going to sound like a dig, but it’s not meant to be and I will explain more after I write this next sentence: Colbert’s The Late Show reminds me a lot of Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show. Okay, now here’s where I try to explain this: Jay Leno was actually pretty good at hosting his version of The Tonight Show. Maybe I didn’t particularly like it and you didn’t particularly like it, but a lot of people liked it. Leno played to the heartland. (I am originally from the Midwest, so that is not a dig at our heartland.) And he was pretty good at appeasing that crowd. He didn’t offend anyone. He seemed like a nice enough guy (when he wasn’t conniving against other late night hosts) and he put on broad, lowbrow humor and people watched it. So be it.
Stephen Colbert’s show is doing the same thing. A couple of weeks ago, Colbert stood on stage and read the story of the 2000 election as a bedtime story. It was basically a Leno joke. And it even ended with an innuendo that Colbert might end with a rhyming “cuss word,” but then he didn’t and the studio gasped and Colbert gave some weird grin in a, “can you believe I almost cussed?” kind of way. It was all really terrible.
And that’s Colbert’s biggest problem: He wants to be an all encompassing “America’s Host” when that’s not at all what Colbert is. Colbert is smart and he’s divisive and he has opinions. Yeah, I get that old line, “Republicans watch television, too,” but the world doesn’t work like that anymore. You can still “play to everyone,” but it’s in the form of what Fallon and Corden do. Stephen Colbert dancing around the stage with Skrillex just seems off – and from the body language of Colbert, I bet he knows it’s off, too.
I still hold out hope the “old Colbert” will come back before this presidential election is over, but my hope is slim. I don’t think that Colbert is coming back. Our political satire will rest squarely at the feet of Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver. (I truly believe Oliver wanted his show to just be about shedding light on subjects that need it, but Oliver is now begrudgingly accepting his comedic pundit role, just because so few others are doing it well at this point.)
But there’s Colbert, dancing around with Skrillex, trying to make everyone happy … but as long as this continues, no one is happy.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.