Don’t take Stephen Colbert too seriously when he says, as he did on his late-night CBS debut Tuesday, that he is searching for the real Stephen Colbert.
He knows his strengths, point out media observers who tuned in to David Letterman’s successor. In all, some 6.6 million viewers watched the premiere of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” CBS reported Wednesday, citing Nielsen ratings. While it’s premature to hold a coronation for a new king of late night, that was enough to double the ratings of "The Tonight Show" and was up more than 130 percent over last year’s ratings for the show.
Colbert had George Clooney heating up the seat beside him with a whole lot of inconsequential hot air. And a heap of sincerity that fans of “The Colbert Report” would hardly recognize.
But his true secret weapon, one that he honed for more than nine years over on Comedy Central was on display with his serious, but humorous interview of GOP presidential hopeful, Jeb Bush.
“Colbert and his staff have correctly sized up the competition and discovered that the biggest weakness in late night TV is the interview,” says Dave Berg, former executive producer of NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” This is especially true with his closest competition, NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, says Mr. Berg.
“Fallon is incredibly talented, but he has redefined late night TV in such a way that interviews aren’t a factor,” he says. While Fallon may bring on serious guests such as politicians, Berg says, he doesn’t interview them so much as “he does shtick with them.”
Nonetheless, Colbert’s opening night certainly pays homage to the well-established routines of late night, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “That structure with the opening monologue, the desk, the bandleader, and a line up of guests moving down the couch has been in place pretty much since the dawn of ‘The Tonight Show’ in 1954,” says Professor Thompson.
While Colbert may have divined a place to make his mark with the serious interview, he will have to do much better in defining that as his strength. For fans of the ironic conservative parody he played for nearly a decade, the biggest surprise may have been his unabashed sincerity in everything from the opening montage, in which he sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” with folks across the nation, to his closing sing-a-long, “Everyday People.”
“He reminded me of Fallon as much as his old self over at Comedy Central,” says Thompson, which means that Colbert has work to do in refining his new persona.
Colbert needs more of that old sharpness, agrees Wheeler Winston Dixon, film studies professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. “Colbert needs more of a razor edge than he showed last night to separate himself from the pack,” he says.
In this social media age, where much of the war for the hearts and minds of late-night viewers is fought in the online space the next day, “he also needs more viral segments – which Fallon specializes in – to rise to the top,” he writes in an e-mail.
But Colbert already has helped to reshape expectations for late-night success with his own show, “The Colbert Report,” says James Farrelly, a professor of English and director of film studies at University of Dayton.
Colbert is “well schooled in sharing a moment of fake news with even the most difficult guests from the inner sanctums of D.C. and the world of work,” he writes in an e-mail. And the new CBS host clearly intends to serve both demands with his new show.
“His guest list for the first short week indicates that he's nobody’s fool, and he can mix George Clooney with Jeb Bush, Scarlett Johannson with Elon Musk, Joe Biden and the Uber CEO, and Amy Schumer and Stephen King,” says Professor Farrelly.
Political observation is part of Colbert’s fabric, says Jeff McCall, journalism professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.
“He is sure to keep political comedy as a main part of his new role,” he says.
That may not be because audiences are demanding a more serious kind of show as much as that Colbert has to be true to his instincts, he adds. Beyond that, McCall notes, Colbert’s success at CBS hinges somewhat on being able to keep his followers from Comedy Central.
“If he tried to do a Carson or Leno type show, Colbert's devotees would abandon him as a sellout,” he says via e-mail.
There is still a risk for Colbert if he makes his show too political, however.
Moving beyond his core fan base into the broader potential late-night audience, says McCall, “those viewers mostly want to be entertained and not necessarily have to confront the heavy issues of the political world, even in a comedic sense.”