Culture Vultures

A Fake Newsman in Late Night?

CBS taps Stephen Colbert.

By From the June 2014 issue

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David Letterman, host of the long running Late Show on CBS, announced his intention to end his tenure in 2015. After twenty-two years of dry wit and droll interviews, Letterman will cede his desk to Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. This shake up, now so common in the late night television circuit, reveals America’s changing taste in comedy. Colbert, a political satirist popular with the Millennial crowd, appears to be a natural successor for a show that caters to the tuned-in. For decades, America has laughed along with dapper suits skewering shifting headlines into the early hours. For those like myself, love of the format started early in life, in a simpler era of television programming.

The following is an entry from the writing journal that my third grade teacher, Ms. DiTommaso, required me to keep. Dated February 2, 1991:

Saddium Hussein [sic] is a mean man. He is leaking oil into the water. He is shooting SCUD missiles at Israel. If he is not stopped, he will take over America! He wants to destroy everything. He has more power than Hitlor [sic]. The ground war may start. We are in trouble then! He was very good ground weapons. I don’t know how much. I just know he has good weapons. If we catch him, we will punish him. A lot of people think we should pull the troops out and drop a bomb. If it’s okay with my mom, I’m going to stay up and watch the news.

I smile when reading this today for two reasons. The first is that I am highly amused by my stance on foreign policy, which as far as I can tell is uncharacteristically hawkish for a nine year old. As fate would have it, a research assistantship with the Kagans was not forthcoming, so I decided to stick around and ride out the whole elementary school experience.

The second and more important reason is that I doubtless did get special permission to stay up with my mother to watch the late news. I have vague remembrances of many world events from that perspective. Not too many months prior to the Gulf War, I had been rightfully scolded for mocking the accent of a crying German woman interviewed by a foreign correspondent as the Berlin Wall fell all around her. “Be thankful you will never know the joy that woman is feeling,” my mother told me, “because you live in a place that is free and will stay that way.” 

As the hours ticked away on February 2, 1991, I stared in awe into the face of our old Sony Trinitron as it displayed graphical inserts ticking off the technical majesty of the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the Patriot Missile. I did live in a place that was always going to be free, didn’t I? Free, at least, from external threats. As policy-minded as I apparently was, I couldn’t have grasped the creeping encroachment of the administrative state.

But I did know one thing: If I was really lucky, my mom would let me stay up after the news ended to watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. I don’t remember many of the jokes, nor would I have understood them. The guests were all Hollywood actors from movies that I wouldn’t have been allowed to watch anyhow. Still, I recall the sense of adult sophistication I felt on those rare occasions.  

Certain things from those days remain familiar. It wasn’t the last time our military forces would be deployed to the Persian Gulf, for example. But the late night TV scene of today would be unrecognizable to the viewer of 1991. Back then, Carson, whose show taped from NBC Studios in Burbank, was the undisputed King of Late Night, a moniker he had earned by the late 1970s when it became clear that the other offerings in the 11:35 p.m. time slot were so noncompetitive that Carson had only to host three original shows a week, filling the rest of the airtime with guest hosts, including fellow comedians Joan Rivers, David Letterman, Bob Newhart, and Jay Leno. 

During his thirty-year tenure, Carson followed the now ubiquitous talk show format developed by his predecessor Jack Paar: The host—usually joined by a house band and often a comedic sidekick—opens with a topical monologue about current events, runs through a few recurring sketches, interviews one or more celebrity guests, and closes with a musical act or comedian. Mr. and Mrs. America then turn off the lights and drift off to sleep. 

For the most part, little of the time-tested formula has changed in the years since Carson’s retirement in 1992. Behind the scenes, however, a series of interpersonal dramas have occurred that vaguely resemble the plot of Game of Thrones, HBO’s hit medieval fantasy show about duplicitous clan warfare. Filling a time slot once reserved for test patterns has become surprisingly bruising.

By the time of Carson’s retirement, Joan Rivers was long gone. She had been the regular substitute host in the early ’80s until she caught a glimpse of a leaked memo written by NBC executives strategizing about Carson’s anticipated departure. She was not included on a list of ten potential successors. Embittered, she left in 1986 to join the fledgling Fox Network and host her own program, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. The move cost Rivers her dear friendship with Carson, whose blessing she did not seek before launching a competing show. Worse, when Fox executives revealed the decision to fire Rivers’s husband as producer of the failing show, her response was so acerbic that they fired both of them. Her husband committed suicide three months later, a tragedy Rivers attributes to this humiliation.

When Carson stepped off stage, David Letterman was considered the natural successor, having dutifully served for ten years as the host of Late Night, which immediately followed the Tonight Show. Carson himself wanted Letterman to get the promotion. But Jay Leno, who had regularly substituted for Carson, was picked instead. The behind the scenes wrangling and the fierce rivalry that developed between former friends Leno and Letterman became the subject of a made-for-television movie aired on the aforementioned HBO.

Snubbed, Letterman departed for CBS, a network that had previously conceded late night, airing mostly old movies and other low cost content instead. They pulled out all the stops for their new foray into the time slot, The Late Show with David Letterman, repurchasing the Ed Sullivan Theater, a former television and radio studio where the Beatles made their first United States appearance and a defiant Jim Morrison sang the word “higher” to Sullivan’s ire.

The two titans of late night battled back and forth for years. Letterman opened strong, but Leno usually secured the highest ratings from 1995 on. There was no longer a reigning king, but two princes. But as I would tell my third grade self if I could travel back in time, this, too, shall pass. ABC introduced its own serious entry into the market in 2003 with Jimmy Kimmel Live! And in 2004, NBC announced that the aging Leno, though at the top of the ratings game, would be replaced in 2009 by the younger Conan O’Brien (who had been hosting Late Night, Letterman’s old show, since 1992). Leno, by announcing his decision to peacefully step aside years in advance, said that he hoped to avoid circumstances similar to the War of the Roses that developed for Carson’s throne.

But it seems that there can rarely be comity in comedy. O’Brien’s surreal brand of self-referential meta-humor played well with the night owls who stayed up past Leno, but the Tonight Show audience was older, more staid, and more mainstream. O’Brien opened strong, but his ratings soon declined to abominable levels. 

Compounding the situation, the semi-retired Leno had been given a 10 p.m. show by NBC, which hoped to score big in the ratings and avoid the high costs of the procedural cop dramas that usually aired in the slot. 

That failed too. Thrashing commenced. NBC attempted to set Leno up with a half hour program at 11:35 and wanted to bump O’Brien back to 12:05, an option that seemed to please neither party. The rift was the gossip of the entertainment industry for weeks, with many Hollywood insiders taking sides with the upstart O’Brien. In the end, Leno took back the Tonight Show and O’Brien left, re-emerging with a new offering on basic cable network TBS when his contractual non-compete clause expired.

O ’ brien’s new venue highlights the multitude of choices viewers now have, a far cry from simpler days of Carson. Aside from broadcast networks, there are scores of cable networks, on demand services which allow viewers to watch programs the following day, websites like YouTube and Hulu that circulate clips instead of entire shows, and streaming content services such as Netflix which enable them to watch something else entirely.

This audience fragmentation is a poison pill for the networks. When Leno returned to the Tonight Show in 2010, he still posted the highest ratings in his time slot, but they fell by almost two million viewers from his 2003 peak. In the intervening years, ABC had shifted Kimmel’s show from 12:05 to 11:35 to directly compete with NBC and CBS. Leno retired in February, this time likely for good, with O’Brien’s replacement at Late Night, Jimmy Fallon, taking over hosting duties. In the few weeks the new incarnation has been on the air so far, it has been a hit, with Fallon winning his timeslot and seeing ratings about 50 percent better than Leno’s from this time last year.

Given Leno’s departure, it surprised no one when Letterman announced in early April that he would pack it in sometime in 2015. What was surprising is that CBS drew his replacement not from within—Craig Ferguson, the host of the show airing after Letterman’s, wisely included a clause in his contract through which he earned a boatload of cash for being passed over for the promotion—but from the landscape of the cable networks which have been steadily picking off viewers.

This brings us to Late Show’s new host, Stephen Colbert. For the uninitiated, the actor and comedian Colbert first rose to prominence as a correspondent on The Daily Show, Comedy Central’s snarky, often unapologetically liberal, take on cable news. The Daily Show is a curious hybrid, meant to parody news with an irreverent, sarcastic delivery that appeals to young viewers so much that many actually do get their news from it. There Colbert developed his persona, a sendup of the loud, brash, politically conservative, quick-fire cable newsman. Think Bill O’Reilly on steroids. The joke, which understandably offends many conservatives, is that Colbert is severely misinformed but sticks to his reflexively “conservative” viewpoints no matter the evidence to the contrary.

The long-running Daily Show had become a juggernaut for Comedy Central mostly due to the biting wit of Jon Stewart—host since 1999—who has garnered sixteen Emmys so far for his writing and producing. The show itself has won two Peabody Awards for its coverage of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. It might be a fake news show, but its acclaim and cultural influence is very, very real. So it was no surprise in 2005 when Comedy Central execs decided to extend the brand by introducing The Colbert Report, a parody of the personality driven shows on Fox News.

The Colbert Report—the host pronounces the name in a French fashion by dropping the “t” at the end of both words—quickly came into its own. In the pilot episode, Colbert coined the word “truthiness,” which means an argument made from the gut without regards to facts or logic. This was supposed to sum up the ethos of the then-recently expired George W. Bush administration, and in turn of host Colbert himself. Truthiness, voted the 2006 Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, has since entered the lexicon. (As I type this piece, my word processor does not correct it.)

And that was just day one. Since then, the show has become a must on the interview circuit for policy wonks, authors, celebrities, and politicos, in the process earning its own Peabody Awards and Emmys, and in 2013 finally ending the longest running streak in Emmy History—held by its parent, The Daily Show—by pulling in the Best Variety Series Award. The joke, all the while, has been that Colbert has never broken his “character,” the well-meaning conservative buffoon. This has earned him praise from surprising places. O’Reilly and Colbert have each appeared on the other’s program, and O’Reilly has said in a Newsweek interview that it is a compliment to be lampooned by Colbert because his program is not mean-spirited. Many conservatives feel the same way. Stewart comes across as nakedly contemptuous of conservative viewpoints, whereas Colbert’s delivery seems to be in good fun. We are in on the joke, if you will.

Not everyone, though, is a fan. Just prior to the announcement of Colbert’s move to CBS, he became embroiled in a minor controversy for an off color joke about Asian people, itself a parody of a news story about the owner of the Washington Redskins refusing to change the name of the team. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin and a whole host of liberal activists called for Colbert’s head. Some correctly pointed out that a conservative in the same position would have been given the boot.

Instead, Colbert was given a much bigger platform. There is no telling if it will work out. His typical audience is younger than the usual viewer of late night network TV. In May 2009, the median age of Colbert viewers was thirty-eight, whereas for Letterman it was fifty-four, and for Leno fifty-five. And according to Pew Research, a large majority—80 percent!—of Colbert’s audience is fifty or younger. Colbert might pull a treasured younger audience back to the network or, as seems to have been the case with O’Brien’s stint, his brand of humor might be too youthful and edgy for such a prime chunk of the airwaves.

Further, the Colbert that fans know and love is tied to his Comedy Central persona, which he has said will not convey to CBS. No one really knows what a show hosted by the real Stephen Colbert will look like.

His actual political leanings appear fairly obvious. He’s used his ironic character to launch fake presidential campaigns, host facetious political rallies, and even testified in character before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Security. He formed a Super PAC to lampoon weak campaign finance laws. Colbert’s real sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat in their home state of South Carolina.

Though most certainly a liberal, Colbert is a devout Catholic and family man who said in a 60 Minutes interview that he doesn’t let his children watch his show because “kids can’t understand irony or sarcasm, and I don’t want them to perceive me as insincere.” Anyone who has watched his show can attest that, despite his ostensibly insincere persona, there is an earnestness to his interviews that avoids the trademark liberal smugness of Jon Stewart—or of David Letterman, for that matter. I will be giving the show a chance. At the very least, they didn’t hire Saddium Hussein or Hitlor. 

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About the Author

Bill Zeiser is a communications consultant living in New York City and a 2012 Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BillZeiser.