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.