Late night TV, as we’ve known it, is almost over.
That’s what I thought watching Stephen Colbert’s much-hyped Tuesday debut on CBS’ “Late Show.” Wednesday’s had a mildly interesting interview with Elon Musk but it didn’t change my mind. If Colbert hadn’t done a surprising and moving – if sycophantic – interview with Joe Biden on Thursday I might have despaired completely over the current state of that part of the daily TV schedule that used to be reserved for audiences of card-carrying civilized grown-ups and ever-hopeful consumers of TV adventure.
Except for that Biden interview, major late-night network TV programming last week seemed, without any leftover vestige of Letterman’s sour bristling, to be a dumbed-down playpen of transplanted afternoon television and corporate force-feeding.
I can’t say after a week of the new Colbert – the supposed “real” Colbert who seemed to me most of the time even phonier than the old “Colbert Show” character and far less interesting now – that I’ll always opt for his show from now on. Only that Biden interview and the opening night’s all-star version of Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” with Mavis Staples, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and Buddy Guy, struck me as worth the hoopla.
Yes, yes, I know Colbert was justifiably excited about taking over for Letterman, but I found him all but unwatchable sometimes, whether charging onto the stage nightly and dancing like a talentless version of Ellen DeGeneres or steamrolling over Jeb Bush’s soggy responses to Colbert’s own dreary questions. (To his credit, Colbert did admit to Bush that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in Miami Beach that he’d vote for the former Florida governor.)
Bush’s nothing segment on the opener followed an even less interesting nothing segment wherein George Clooney had nothing interesting to say or do – and that includes his usual unfunny overacting a comedy movie parody that didn’t begin to work.
On Wednesday night, Colbert admitted that the opening show was so fraught with technical difficulty that at 11:20 p.m. that night, he still wasn’t sure the show would be aired. He also admitted that it was so overstuffed that a lot of the best stuff had to be edited out – including Jeb Bush’s impression of Donald Trump. Colbert advised us to go online and see that night’s outtakes.
We now know that Colbert – who, in his finest hour, ripped the Washington press a new one at a White House press dinner of its Iraq War coverage – is as happy as can be to be a good, dutiful corporate citizen of America’s Entertainment Industrial Complex (most of the opener’s commercials were for fall movies.)
It’s entirely possible that a real human and fiery Colbert will take over from the somewhat obnoxious high-energy self-celebrant we saw for most of last week. I know too that we have to cede the fellow his joy in getting such a premium gig, but rolling over guest’s responses to your bad questions and inaugurating new comedy bits that seemed to steal badly from Bill Maher’s “New Rules” is not what I was hoping for. Nor, to understate considerably, was a fellow who jumped around a lot with a relentless overcaffeinated smile as vehement as Pinky Lee’s or Pee Wee Herman’s.
I haven’t given up on him completely, mind you. If that happens, it will take a long time. But he certainly won’t be my late night go-to guy now either. Nor will I ever think he belongs in the great Steve Allen-Jack Paar-Johnny Carson-David Letterman tradition. If either of the Jimmys have better guests, I’ll be happy to go there first – or DVR them all.
That is the huge problem with modern late night – the DVR. That and YouTube have destroyed late night television as the conclave where TV’s smart-alecks and restless revolutionaries and urbane literate adults performed for the hippest audiences of the broadcast day.
That was the role – and the tradition – Colbert could have glided into. It’s wide-open now and it was one that “The Colbert Report” revealed him uniquely qualified to fill amid all the Jimmys and Jameses and Conans and Seths.
YouTube give us nightly late-nights’ greatest hits. Watching in “real time” just hasn’t been made necessary again.
After a week watching Colbert, I couldn’t have been more sorry that CBS didn’t appoint either DeGeneres or Craig Ferguson the heir to Letterman. But Colbert’s is clearly the ultra-safe package they want.
They’ll undoubtedly get lots of big, lovely Nielsen numbers with him and lots of fat, juicy commercial fees, but they’ll get almost no respect whatsoever from those of us who treasure late-night TV as television’s home for show business’ creative vanguard, whether it was Allen, Paar or Letterman.
Except for that Biden interview, that Elon Musk interview and that mind-blowing opening night blowout on “Everyday People,” Colbert seemed to me to have discovered just another way of being Jay Leno – the ultimate, smarmy unadventurous host in love with his own glibness and delighted to follow Carson’s total capitulation to the Entertainment Industrial Complex.
It was Carson and his production people who first realized that the only way they could continue to get big-name guests is to pluck them off the money tree when they’re ripe with things they need to sell – movies, record albums, books, comedy gigs, plays, whatever. Under Carson and his producer Fred DeCordova, the late-night talk show turned into a plush entertainment department store open for business.
Carson might ask a stiff question or two, and risk a smarty-pants guest of the Gore Vidal or Carl Sagan variety, but he was happier to be the genial and severely reserved King of Show Business, creating huge careers with just a half-smile and an invitation to sit on his couch.
Leno’s third-rate imitation of that – and Letterman’s periodic but loving rebellions against the King’s rules – have now been carried on by Colbert with truly depressing energy and good cheer.
There IS hope for the boy, I think. That Biden interview was a bracing TV rarity – a truly human investigation of a major pol’s life that has been horribly overfull of personal grief (most recently over the death from brain cancer of his son Beau.) A reasonably fresh interview with Elon Musk was a nice bit of opening week programming chutzpah.
Deep down inside, I think Colbert knows that the biggest thing missing from network late-night is what he and Jon Stewart could provide – an actual home for discussion that flirted with intelligence and even a smattering of intellectualism. It would be a miracle if we could somehow get back even a part of what Dick Cavett and his old Yale friend and producer Christopher Porterfield (who once worked for Time magazine) gave ABC in the ’70’s.
But the “real” Colbert could do just that. It would be an astonishing thing to do after all those decades of “dumbing down” have led stupidity in the public sphere few of us could have imagined.
Whatever hit the big Nielsen numbers might take could easily be offset by potential advertisers understanding that they are talking to a unique and discerning and information-avid audience they won’t find anywhere else on television.
Except for that Biden interview, that’s not where Colbert’s first week seemed to point to.
We need to keep watching though.
He may yet remember his former life on Comedy Central when, somewhat incredibly, he could pretend, in character, to be a smile-afflicted right-wing doofus who could tell the duo of Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda that they belonged in the kitchen making cookies.
That guy was conspicuously beloved for the joke by Steinem and Fonda themselves.
We need him back. When we look at the new corporate toady with ADHD, we just have to remember he’s inside there somewhere.