On Sunday night, Stephen Colbert became the first host in the history of late-night TV to do a show immediately after the Super Bowl. That he and his team fumbled the gig should come as little surprise.
The post-Super Bowl slot has been a mixed blessing of late. Ratings for whatever show follows the nation’s most-watched television event of each year inevitably spike on that Sunday night, but the bump for subsequent episodes is far less substantial, even non-existent. Creatively speaking, most Super Bowl episodes are burdened with such high expectations from audiences and network executives that they’re more concerned with being big and loud than being good. By the end of an exhausting Super Bowl game and halftime show, the last thing most people want to do is keep their brain turned on for one to two more hours of programming, even if they keep their televisions on in an act of sheer inertia.
On top of all those built-in obstacles, Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show is uniquely unsuited to the task of following up the most expensive, expansive spectacle in American pop culture. Since he took up the post as CBS’ late-night anchor in September, Colbert has largely eschewed the kinds of high-octane viral moments – a la Jimmy Fallon’s lip sync battles or James Corden’s carpool karaoke – a post-Super Bowl late-night audience has been primed to expect. Instead, Colbert has emphasized smart talk in his first five months, offering up substantive conversations with politicians, authors and CEOs alongside the standard movie stars. And while Colbert’s director competitors Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel often make reference to sports in their monologues and viral bits, Colbert’s lasers have been pointed almost exclusively at the 2016 election and other political news of the day.
Viewers experiencing Colbert’s Late Show for the first time on Sunday night had every reason to be overwhelmed. The show was scattered, overlong and plodding, with Colbert’s energy level flagging far too early, betraying his bemusement and befuddlement at the Super Bowl spectacle. After a reasonably inspired but far from groundbreaking intro featuring President Obama, almost nothing of value emerged from a rote interview with Tina Fey and Margot Robbie or an amusing but flat rehash of a great Key & Peele sketch. An extended bit from Will Ferrell in character as a very confused animal correspondent inspired a few giggles but little more. Colbert’s ears seemed to perk up for his interview with Megyn Kelly, which was thoughtful but once again a low-key mood killer for the hyped Super Bowl crowd. The entire show seemed to misunderstand what viewers expected from the show that follows the Super Bowl, and reflected narrow thinking on the part of CBS, which should have realized that Colbert’s strengths don’t lie with big-tent popular entertainment. Even the live format seemed to rumple the usually unflappable host.
But anyone who wrote off Colbert on the basis of his most-scrutinized, least representative episode thus far need look only to Wednesday night’s outstanding episode to be reminded of what Colbert does well. In the opening stand-up bit, Colbert lampooned the late-night medium’s tendency toward conformity when he faux-contemplated starting his monologue with New Hampshire primary coverage at the desk. Then Senator Bernie Sanders joined Colbert in a bit that was mostly notable for showing that Colbert’s specific comedic timing is vital to making his jokes work. Bernie Sanders’ monotone cadence didn’t do the same trick.
Colbert’s desk bit was typically sharp, a less barbed version of what he used to do as the firebrand conservative pundit he played on The Colbert Report. I want a full explainer on who made those sandwiches, how he had them stacked beneath his desk in just the right order, and who ate them afterwards.
The Ben Stiller interview wasn’t exactly revelatory, but it had a bit more substance and audible repartee than your average Fallon giggle-fest.
But the standout from the night was Colbert’s interview with Bernie Sanders, which struck the exact right balance between tough and humane. Colbert asked smart questions that got at the heart of the Bernie Sanders conundrum: lovely ideas, but what’s the plan for executing them? The exchange wasn’t tense or uncomfortable, and Sanders largely stuck to his talking points, but Colbert admirably stayed the course, occasionally cutting his subject off when Sanders strayed from directly responding to Colbert’s question.
(Colbert did similarly probing interviews with Vice President Joe Biden and Ted Cruz in the early weeks of his CBS run. His chats with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were disappointingly weak, but in the case of the former, Colbert likely recognized that slamming Trump would only generate more headlines and feed the media beast in exactly the way that Trump wants.)
It’s hardly surprising that Colbert’s best work on CBS has been in the political arena. After all, it’s where the vast majority of his previous experience in front of the camera lies, and it seems to be the subject area he finds most fruitful as a vessel for comedy.
What may have been surprising and dispiriting to CBS executives about their new flagship late-night host is evident in a small gesture during Wednesday’s Sanders interview. Sanders takes a shot at Colbert’s Monday guest Bill O’Reilly, saying the Fox News host is almost always wrong and noting that a presidential win for Sanders would mean the end of O’Reilly’s tenure in the United States. Colbert smiled knowingly, then raised his hand as if to say, “That’s enough.” Indeed, this moment made headlines this morning. But from Colbert’s body language, it was clear that he wanted to move on, to make the night about a conversation rather than a moment. Unlike his competitors, who have sliced the late-night model into bite-size pieces ready-made for YouTube clips and morning-after aggregation, Colbert appears to be driving for something more long-form. (John Oliver has carved out a niche for himself taking a similar approach on his HBO show, but he has far more freedom to experiment on a subscription-based service than on a major network like CBS, which has a broader nationwide reach.)
It remains to be seen if that ambition wins out over the network mandate, which favors ratings and media coverage however they can be secured. Colbert still has plenty of growth to come before he’s fully figured out how best to balance those competing goals. There’s plenty of value in what Fallon and Kimmel are doing, as well as Seth Meyers, who has been doing excellent political commentary on the show since around the time Colbert started. But in an election season and a late-night landscape dominated by morsels, Colbert’s stab at an entree is a welcome diversion.