Stephen Colbert is making an interesting statement at the dawn of his run as the host of The Late Show, because it feels like he doesn’t covet first place, or at least he might not be interested in doing what needs to be done to claim the brass ring. This after sitting on the throne as late-night ratings leader for one night before Jimmy Fallon deployed Justin Timberlake and a new History of Rap segment that became a viral video and ruled the morning-after-internet. Yielding an unsurprising and probably long-lasting return to the top.
Fallon’s Tonight Show, with its youthful party vibe and its complete understanding of how social media can be used to extend the life of a segment and the reach of a show, is in good shape to stave off a charge from all comers and should be credited for the way that it has made arguments about late night’s waning legitimacy seem illegitimate themselves.
Colbert’s show, thus far, has demonstrated that it has its strengths as well, but they aren’t the same as Fallon’s.
After (just) three episodes, Colbert hasn’t really performed one “stunt” that was clearly designed to compete with Fallon or Kimmel for viral video real estate. In his premiere episode, Colbert even went so far as to reportedly cut a bit where candidate Jed Bush ate a piece of cotton candy Donald Trump quaff off of his head.
And then, when given the chance to put deleted material on the web, Colbert chose to go with a gun control question and a more grounded Trump moment.
These things aren’t going to necessarily get clicks. But does that mean that Stephen Colbert is bad at the internet and thus, the task of being a late night host in the 21st century? Not necessarily. What it means is that Colbert seems, at this early juncture, like he is more interested in putting out a serious product. That’s evident when you look at his guest list (CEOs, politicians, and socially minded actors) and when you watch him talk to these people.
Take last night: rather than keep things upbeat with Vice President Joe Biden, Colbert had the confidence in his abilities and in his audience to cut to the quick and nearly lead off by asking about the death of Biden’s son, his faith, and his presidential plans. A type of interview that no other active late night show host would attempt and one that organically produced A BIG moment that had people talking the next day despite the fact that it lacked nostalia or celebrity hijinks.
Is that the plan, then? Have faith in the notion that more obvious comedy bits are not the sole pathway to water cooler or Facebook chatter the next day? Faith instilled in Colbert by nine years hosting The Colbert Report and almost 15 years watching The Daily Show rise in prominence.
Well, maybe it’s part of the plan. The thing is, Stephen Colbert isn’t going to be one thing and there are going to be silly moments surrounding the times when he speaks his mind or pushes a guest for a real answer. But what he’s not going to be is someone who follows and he’s going to be someone who does the kind of show that he wants to do, even if it lacks some of the endearing qualities that its competitors have. And even if it is — on any given night — unlike anything else on the air. And in striding forth in that direction right out of the gate, Stephen Colbert is giving us all a real nightly choice and giving CBS the same kind of show it has sponsored at the Ed Sullivan Theater since 1993 when David Letterman took the stage and did the show that he wanted to do every night. A show that may not be No. 1 in the ratings but which can still be very good and which can inspire a passionate following.