The world of late night television been through upheaval lately, none of which seems specifically designed to make it funnier. First, Jay Leno retired and ushered in Jimmy Fallon, who has all the late-night charisma of a slice of Steak & Shake Texas toast. Not to be outdone, Fallon replaced himself with SNL alum Seth Meyers who was mostly notable for making SNL less funny. And not to be outdone by his NBC competitors, David Letterman will be replaced by Stephen Colbert, who is not a late-night talk show host or stand-up comedian, but a caricature of a Fox News talk show host last popular in 2004.
All of the above, of course, have their merits. Jimmy Fallon’s sketch comedy is YouTube gold, which lets NBC delude itself into believing those in the under-thirty-five set are tearing themselves away from Netflixed reruns of Breaking Bad long enough to lull themselves to sleep with a Neil Young impersonation instead of ignoring the late-night model almost altogether. (I mean, did you know Nightline was still on?) Seth Meyers provides a valuable look into the downward spiral of a comedian’s career after encountering the Peter Principle. And Colbert is a draw for younger viewers—which late night desperately needs to court—and brings along some of the best writers in television. He may not have Jimmy Fallon’s skinny tie or talent for roping famous people into playing games they last encountered in an East Coast frat house on a reunion weekend, but at least the guy has talent.
The decision to hire Colbert, which Rush Limbaugh, with trademark subtlety, recently called “a declaration of war on middle America” (who probably heard Stephen Colbert’s name for the first time from Rush Limbaugh), seems to be in response to the sudden need to expand network television’s viewer base into more desirable demographics: the ones who buy products top-dollar advertisers sell, but not on late-night television. Even if they’re pulling in a slightly smaller market share (the Tonight Show, for example, barely cracks the top 100, falling short of shows like Spongebob Squarepants in ratings), the possibility of selling Google Glasses, the iPhone 12, and Anchorman 4 to people parked in front of television screens is attractive. NBC, of course, had an opportunity to do this before, with Conan O’Brien, whose admittedly small audience (now on TBS) hits all the right marketing sweet spots. But Jay Leno wasn’t ready to pass on his low bar in 2009.
The dangers of hiring Colbert are, of course, that Americans might not get the joke. Colbert is most famous for his stint on the Daily Show and his spinoff program the Colbert Report, where he plays a caricature of a cable news interview program host, which took to the airwaves on the heels of Bill O’Reilly’s the O’Reilly Factor (Colbert’s character lovingly calls O’Reilly “Papa Bear”). When he makes the jump to late night, most critics assume he’ll ditch the shtick for a straight-man interviewer role, with occasional forays into political commentary. A lot of his current viewers might miss the bombastic nature of his grilling, they might mourn his nightly O’Reilly-esque soliloquy, and they might have less warning when Colbert’s top threat—namely, bears, about which he often rings alarms—finally organize enough to enact their world domination strategy. CBS hopes, though, that he’ll take his younger audience with him, getting them to switch over from the Daily Show to pick up right where Letterman will leave off.
There are no guarantees to that, either. What makes Colbert so attractive on cable television won’t ingratiate him to an older, stodgier audience looking to end their night with airy celebrity interviews about movies they probably won’t see until they’re available on demand. If he insists on bringing his bombastic faux-conservative persona to late night, he’ll lose half of the mid-American viewership that makes cookie-cutter prime time dramas like NCIS and Chuck Lorre’s swath of formulaic sitcoms a success. Americans don’t like things to challenge and reform their traditional notions of television. Or, for that matter, their traditional notions of anything. Except perhaps their traditional notions of how to ingest bacon.
At least one person will benefit from Colbert’s transition to basic cable. Heaven knows Rush Limbaugh will have enough outrage to fill hours of radio programming. And if this all falls through for Colbert, perhaps he’s found the next conservative icon he can jokingly imitate.