History repeated itself this week with the announcement that Stephen Colbert would replace David Letterman as host of CBS’s Late Show. While many TV fans learned for the first time that the Tiffany Network’s rival to The Tonight Show actually has a name other than “Letterman,” many more had a sense of déjà two — the feeling that you’ve had this experience before, but that an army of publicists is trying to convince you it’s something entirely new.
The entirely new part is that Colbert is better known as a parodist and active comedian than as the kind of affable straight man that television usually looks for to fill one of entertainment’s least definable jobs — that of “host.” People who are in a position to know tell me that Colbert has talents far beyond what he has shown on his long-running Comedy Central news parody The Colbert Report, and I look forward to checking out his new effort.
But the been-there-before part seems much more pronounced.
I’m not just referring to the selection of another white male of a certain age for the late-show M.C. club, though this is certainly notable. (I’m a white male of a certain age, and even I’m wondering if that’s all there is.) Colbert’s announcement maintains another paradigm that has been dominant for more than 20 years, ever since Jay Leno took over NBC’s Tonight Show franchise and CBS responded by putting Letterman’s Late Show into direct competition with it: the battle between the nice guy and the smart-aleck.
Simply put, the move means we’ll continue to see a Tonight Show host who is folksy, amiable, and relentlessly eager to please, up against a Late Show host who is spikier, more ironical, more what hipsters would call “challenging.”
That Colbert has spent years couching his real “self” inside a parody character, and that he insists on a French pronunciation (col-BAIR) of his last name, should tip you off that this is not the Ma and Pa Kettle character.
On the other hand, Jimmy Fallon, who took over as host of The Tonight Show this year, is widely understood to be the Nicest Guy in Show Biz. The grandmothers can dig his friendlier act, just as they could dig Jay’s laid-back L.A. vibrations back when they were just mothers. Fallon does bring something extra. While a host in some respects is supposed to be a person with a highly developed skill for doing nothing, Fallon possesses a prodigious headliner talent: In the vaudeville shorthand, he can sing a little, dance a little, and do a little comedy. (This is not meant to minimize Fallon’s gifts: He’s the best musical impressionist of our time, as anybody can attest who has seen, for example, his exquisitely absurd Neil Young cover of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.”)
To see how uncannily Fallon and Colbert have reproduced the lovable/unlovable host dynamic, we must posit something that now is hard to believe: Letterman’s act in the Eighties (when he had the extra-late shift behind Johnny Carson) was so new it seemed at the time subversive and revolutionary. He had great writers who brought anti-comedy to the mainstream. Letterman bits relied heavily on truncation: unexplained slogans and catchphrases (“I don’t mind the swelling. It’s the itching I could do without”); listicles of punch lines, but not setups, for astronaut jokes (“Hmm, sure tasted like Tang”) or Scotsman jokes (“It’s nae a bagpipe, but keep playin’ it, ke-e-e-p playin’ it!”); an unmotivated travel sketch in which objects that were at once seemingly random and carefully conceived — such as surgical gloves filled with butterscotch pudding — were thrown from a five-story building. People didn’t watch Dave because he was a nice guy; they watched him because they wanted to see a punk destroying things.
In most of the 20 years he spent in competition with Leno, Letterman learned that more people will watch the nice guy. He went to great lengths to soften his edges (and not to sound crass about it, but Letterman’s genuinely moving shows after the 9/11 attacks and his own heart surgery certainly helped make him more “relatable”), but the viewers never fully bought the nicer Dave. With rare exceptions, Tonight Show topped Late Show’s ratings week in and week out. Jay was the host more Americans felt they could relax around.
I have a soft spot for entertainers who get saddled with the McCartneyite nice-guy reputation, so it’s worth pointing out that Jay Leno did some daring humor too, notably the “Jay Walk” and other trivia-challenge routines in which he would reveal that random pedestrians could not, for example, identify Saddam Hussein while our country was at war in Iraq. The viewer might get an instant of flattery from the sketch (“At least I’m not as dumb as those people”), but the essence of the comedy was that it evoked horror of our countrymen.
It’s possible that the audience for wisenheimer TV has grown large enough to support whatever experiment Colbert has in mind. These shows are less dependent on the number of people who make a bedtime viewing appointment and more on sketches that are striking or lucky enough to get passed around online. The prestige-television trend has also groomed audiences to work harder for television than, in some cases, it works for them — committing to years-long story arcs, pondering complex characters, deciphering oblique plots and open endings, and so on. It’s bewildering to this reviewer, for whom “quality television” means any show where the theme song explains the premise of the show. But the media environment is vast enough to support both hedgehogs and foxes.
There may be a political element as well. Rush Limbaugh’s claim that CBS “declared war on the heartland of America” with the Colbert pick seems overly broad, but it’s not entirely made up. Colbert’s sister was the Democratic challenger to Mark Sanford in last year’s special election for South Carolina’s first-district congressional seat. He’s made his career appealing to blue-state hipsters by ridiculing Fox News. And it’s not like the playing field was free of politics to begin with: Common sense suggests the fact that Leno was truly a free agent in his political humor at least partly informed NBC’s decade-long determination to get rid of him while he remained at the top of his game.
But the distinction still seems more a matter of temperament than of politics. The parties are Leno and Letterman more than Republicans and Democrats. And again, the kinder, gentler approach seems to be the winner: Fallon has been killing it in the ratings, even in the week Letterman announced his retirement.
Weirdly though, this two-way battle is still being fought as many more competitors have entered the game. The late-night airwaves are teeming with Jimmies and Craigs and Seths and Conans. The most interesting to watch, for this viewer at any rate, is ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, who combines a low-impact, Regular Guy persona with occasional bleeding-edge comedy. Kimmel’s “LieWitness News” routines take the “Jay Walk” one better, or worse: depicting our fellow Americans as not just knuckleheads but pathological liars.
It may help that Kimmel is in Los Angeles, where the rewards of exaggeration often exceed the risks of outright lies, and where the people live more or less contentedly in an environment of permabaked amiability. Americans may balk at Hollyweird values, but the mellow tones of Southern California are easier to take while you’re falling asleep in front of your TV. Fallon’s real triumph may be that he has remained lovable even while moving The Tonight Show out of Burbank and back to New York.
Then again, New York itself is a lot less hard-edged than it used to be.