Colbert and the Talk Show Games

Curator's Note

This clip says much about the ranks of network late night “talk shows” that Stephen Colbert will soon join. Bob Odenkirk doesn’t want to play a silly game with Jimmy Kimmel. “Can’t we just talk?” he says, before calling his publicist to complain. Kimmel might be taking a shot at Jimmy Fallon’s tendency to spend so much time in lip sync contests etc. with his celebrity guests, but Kimmel has also based a lot of his show on crowd-sourced segments like parents telling their kids they ate their Halloween candy and so on. Letterman, too, was known for stupid pet tricks and an endless variety of segments and I’m not sure were that far removed from “Heatherball.” But it does seems to me that Colbert is our best hope for engaging talk in late night, which we are missing more of with Jon Stewart out of the game. (John Oliver certainly says a lot, but it’s a monologue!) One of the great things about Letterman was that every now and then his disdain for a guest was right on the surface. I don’t expect Colbert to be like that. His persona on the Colbert Report allowed him to feign enthusiasm for/against guests and positions on social issues. I wonder if he will adopt something similar, or if we will just believe that he isn’t really fawning over whatever pop/movie/tv star is on the show, just like we knew he didn’t really believe those things he was saying on the Colbert Report. Oliver’s rage is loudly articulated, and that is a major part of the fun. For Colbert, the pleasure used to be much more in the game…parsing out what he really thought and how that might emerge in conversation, almost like unveiling a trap that we knew the conversation really was all along. So while it will no doubt be fun to see the top-dollar stars the first week or two of the new Colbert show, I’m looking forward to a few more weeks down the road, when the proportion of run-of-the-mill CBS people notches higher. What sort of “talking game” will he play with them? More Letterman, or more Fallon?


Ethan, thank you for your post and great job kick-starting what we hope to be a weeklong rapport in the spirit of this trickster entertainer. I would agree with your assessment that even Letterman leaned frequently on a bygone stable of recurring sketches and segments so monotonous that they arguably communicated boredom (in the CBS years) more often than comedic rebellion. I wonder if CBS will allow Colbert's staff more (intellectual) freedom to write for, er, West Wing-type demographics, given that Colbert is now the senior member age-wise on the late night circuit and will be broadcasting on the still-geriatric skewing CBS? In recent years, CBS and sister payable network Showtime have worked hard to cross-integrate their products, including Dexter reruns on the Eye, 60 Minutes Sports and Inside the NFL on Showtime, and so on. Given how badly networks push for synergistic crossover, particularly in the post-Network era, will we see the stoic bodies of 60 Minutes hosts play against type in Colbert cameos, a la pre-crisis Brian Williams? There is certainly the impression that the "edge"--if a Straight White Upper-Class Christian Male and Married Father can be considered such a thing--will be softened from Stephen's previous political bite. As I embraced for that inevitable letdown, Colbert has continued to remind audiences of his genuine talent in experimental bits like his "guest hosting" of the public access "Morning in Monroe" show in Michigan. Such creative obscurity teases a modicum of hope.

I suspect you're right, Ethan, that "the game" of parsing Colbert's meanings and messages will be a big pleasure in watching his new show unfold. If his online preview shenanigans are a good indicator, this jester seems eager to hit the ground running. That "Morning in Monroe" bit was golden! But more on point is what Colbert may mean to the Late Night talkshow format that has been desperately chasing younger demographics. Fallon is delightful as a benign instigator of silly shenanigans in the mold of Conan, and Kimmel has the snarky frat boy demographic in his pocket, but it will be very interesting to see what a celebrated satirist like Colbert may bring to the talk show table... IF the corporate powers-that-be allow enough leash. Lest we forget, Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" was sacked from his network line-up less due to outraged viewers, but because disgruntled sponsors disapproved.

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