Late-night talk shows are tiresome. The decades-old format is played out, as relevant today as the 1970s variety show. It’s so stale and old-fashioned that postmodern deconstructions of the Carson-style talk show started over 30 years ago. Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers might be talented and amiable comedians, but their shows have never convinced us that we have to watch them to know what’s happening in comedy the way that Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien’s shows did at different points in time. (O’Brien might have actually been the natural endpoint for the genre: after Letterman mocked the very nature of the talk show during his time on NBC, O’Brien’s freewheeling absurdity was the only viable route left.) Right now late-night is full of talk shows that are professionally produced and often funny but complacent and almost interchangeable. None of the current hosts would admit it (except maybe Jimmy Fallon), but the safe mediocrity of Jay Leno continues to win this late-night war, as most of today’s shows are more indebted to his spirit than Letterman’s.
Letterman’s retirement has opened up new hope for late-night. After a nine month absence Stephen Colbert returns to television tonight, taking over Letterman’s old show on CBS. The premiere of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert will bring America’s greatest living satirist back to television, and even if he’s retiring his conservative blowhard persona from The Colbert Report, we should still expect the whip-smart cultural satire and endearing showbiz enthusiasm Colbert displayed over his long tenure at Comedy Central. And because Colbert is such a polished and ingratiating television presence, without Letterman’s surliness or O’Brien’s spastic energy, he could appeal to both a mainstream audience and hardcore comedy fans more than any host since Carson.
We have perhaps unreachable expectations for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and here are a few things we hope to see from the new show.
Late-night talk shows aren’t immune from the cultural spiral that has lead to almost all popular media revolving around the lives and public images of celebrities. From Kimmel’s cameos to Fallon’s games, the current talk show scene depends on the good will of famous people willing to make fun of themselves. Celebrities will be a big part of Colbert’s line-up of guests—George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Amy Schumer are all appearing this first week—but it’s already clear that the new Late Show will find more time for politicians and other figures outside entertainment than most talk shows. Republican Presidential candidate Jeb Bush joins Clooney on tonight’s debut, and tech titans Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick will both be on later this week. Next week Colbert will host Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The Colbert Report was known for the variety and significance of its guests, and although The Late Show will obviously feature the top Hollywood types, it’s already staking out a claim as the most thoughtful talk show in late-night.
I don’t want to completely bury Kimmel, Meyers or O’Brien. Meyers has shown he can do smart, probing interviews with public figures, and despite his show’s reliance on celebrity cameos Kimmel has a disdain for celebrity culture that recalls his idol Letterman. And O’Brien can pull off a fun, breezy interview with almost anybody, and without the fake excitement and constant glad-handing of Jimmy Fallon. None of them can match Colbert, though, who was already one of the best and most insightful interviewers on television while still keeping up his Bill O’Reilly-style facade. The fact that Colbert could pull off interviews that felt like natural conversations, and that were both legitimately informative and hilarious, all while maintaining his foolish character, raises almost unreachable expectations for what he can do in straight-up interviews. He could be Charlie Rose, Dick Cavett and Jon Stewart in a single body, restoring a bit of gravitas to network talk shows without sacrificing the laughs.
Look at how much attention Meyers and James Corden got just for slightly altering the moldy late-night format. If Colbert started his show at his desk, as he did on The Colbert Report, or with a live remote, or with anything other than a stand-up monologue about current events, it would immediately feel different from the last five decades of late-night. Any deviation from the monologue-comedy bit-first interview-comedy bit-second interview-musical guest format would stand out, alleviating some of the most commonly voiced frustrations with the genre. Colbert’s skill as an improviser and interviewer should more than make up for the hoary structure of the talk show, but it would be valuable if there’s a clear visual or structural symbol to let us know that his show won’t be like every other.
Today’s talk shows are so fixated on creating “viral” moments that they often forget to be funny. From Fallon’s games to Kimmel’s pranks, attention-getting gimmicks have supplanted the kinds of comedy bits you’d expect from a Carson, Letterman or O’Brien. Before he nailed punditry as performance art, Colbert was a smart comedy writer on a variety of hilarious shows, and hopefully he and his writers will be committed to constructing well-thought-out comedy and not rely on quick fixes and crutches. It’s been so long since Colbert has done any comedy that wasn’t explicitly political or satirical, so it’s hard to imagine what kind of comedic tone his show’s bits will take. He was never afraid to look goofy or play broad on The Colbert Report, and he has a strong background in sketch comedy and improvisation, so perhaps we could see a return of Carson-style character work? As long as they put effort into constructing a good concept and writing great lines or situations, and minimize the celebrity cameos, Colbert and his writers could have spur a comedy renaissance in late-night.
This is tough. Talk shows are essentially promotion, and are so entwined with the entertainment industry that it’s difficult to spare time for somebody who isn’t actively promoting a new project. You have to be a firmly established superstar or legacy act to get on one of these shows without a new movie, show or album to talk about. Instead of perpetuating the same marketing cycle that every show is a part of, the new Late Show could distinguish itself by having good musicians on just for the sake of good music. The Colbert Report started having musical guests late in its run, and although most of them were promotional in nature, the show still met the second part of our request above. Colbert did sit-down interviews with every musical guest, which is incredibly rare outside of shows focused entirely on music. (Probably the best thing about Carson Daly’s long-running, almost entirely ignored talk show is that it regularly airs interviews with its musical guests, too.) Instead of two interviews and a band every episode, Colbert should consider devoting a few minutes to interviewing every band or artist that plays his show. Also, it’d be smart to occasionally invite guests outside of pop, hip-hop or indie rock, the genres most often found on these kinds of shows; having the multifaceted Jon Batiste as bandleader is a good sign that the show might look beyond just the youth-friendliest genres when booking musical talent.
What are you hoping to see from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert? Let us know below, and check back tomorrow for our thoughts on the first episode.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He went to a Conan O’Brien taping in 1996; the guests were Peter Weller, Marla Maples and Lloyd Cole.