Saturday, April 19, 2014

(Late) Thoughts on David Letterman and Stephen Colbert

Just about two years ago, Louie closed it's third season on FX with a trilogy of episodes titled "Late Show," in which Louis C.K.'s character - an exaggerated version of himself - was groomed by CBS to take David Letterman's place on The Late Show when Letterman announced his retirement. These were among the show's best episodes, particularly with directors Garry Marshall and David Lynch as studio executives leading Louie through an intense battery of emotional duress and Chris Rock giving him bad advice. At the time, though, it was Jay Leno who was retiring, relinquishing (for real this time) control of The Tonight Show on NBC, which eventually went to current host Jimmy Fallon.

Now, here we are, with Letterman's actual retirement. It's a moment that pretty much surprised everyone. Based on the video from his on-air announcement, even he seems a little taken aback when he actually says the words:



CBS spent very little time choosing a replacement, naming The Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert the heir to the Late Show desk. This means that Colbert will bring his eponymous, Emmy-winning Comedy Central show to close later this year and take over the Late Show in 2015.

I don't watch a lot of late-night television: what little bit I do see comes in the form of the viral videos and YouTube clips that come the next day. I certainly haven't seen much of Letterman's show, so I can't really pay tribute to him. He began his career as a raucous, subversive comedian, and in the early days of Late Show he continued to offer a sarcastic alternative to Jay Leno's "squareness" (Leno and Letterman have a contentious history, as Leno infamously outmaneuvered Letterman to replace Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show). However, many will say that the past decade or so have seen him settle into a comfortable groove, rolling out easy gags and generally putting his rebellious side to rest. What little bit I have seen of his show has been amusing and enjoyable, but not necessarily must-see TV.


As for Colbert, it will be interesting to see how he fares in this segment of the late-night environment. In the 18-49 demographic, The Colbert Report has been routinely trumping The Late Show, and CBS obviously hopes that Colbert will bring some of that audience with him. However, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert will hardly be The Colbert Report 2.0: this will be many audiences' first glimpse of Colbert outside of his faux-conservative blowhard persona, and he'll need to be able to handle the opening monologue (he does have stand-up experience), entertain, and interview guests. The last one is the most interesting prospect: on The Colbert Report, Colbert was able to mix it up with scientists, authors, and politicians, as well as entertainers, meaning he could illicit intellectual conversation even as he playfully pretended to poke holes in their statements. However, The Late Show will require him to mostly interview actors and musicians with projects they need to plug. Ideally, he'll prove himself to be an insightful interviewer and manage to turn these would-be puff pieces into something more, and he'll be able to pull some weight to nab a greater variety of guests. But one wonders whether CBS will really want to play ball with that.

However, it's hard to really know anymore what to make of a new host in late-night. The retirements of Letterman and Leno have brought the end of era; the version of late-night we used to know has been transformed by the viral-video click-bait of Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, the goofy absurdity of Conan O'Brien and Craig Ferguson, and the news-skewering of Jon Stewart and John Oliver (only Seth Meyers and Arsenio Hall still represent the "old-guard" late-night format). Colbert, for as successful an entertainer as he is, may find his new home a bit difficult to adjust to at first. But I think he has a lot of potential to do something truly special with The Late Show. Here's hoping he lives up to it.

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