Stephen Colbert and the Viral Video-Fueled Generation Hijack Late Night
In a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega her theory that the world is made up of only two kinds of people: Beatles people and Elvis people. “Now Beatles people can like Elvis, and Elvis people can like the Beatles, but no one likes them both equally,” she explains. “Somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice tells you who you are.”
For decades, the late-night talk show landscape operated in much the same way. You were either a David Letterman person or a Jay Leno person, and your choice reflected both your comic sensibilities and what you wanted in a late-night host: comfortable and reliable (Leno) or prickly and edgy (Letterman). Sure, you might occasionally switch to the other show if a big star was dropping by the couch, but otherwise, you were either a Letterman person or a Leno person.
But with Leno gone and Letterman announcing his retirement, those distinctions are no more. With yesterday’s news that Stephen Colbert will take over the Late Show next year, the long-held notion of what it means to be a late-night host, and what it means to be a late-night audience, has been forever eradicated.
In 1992, your late-night options were Letterman and Leno, period. As of next year, the lineup will consist of Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel on the broadcast networks, along with cable hosts like Conan O’Brien (remember him?), Jon Stewart and whomever replaces The Colbert Report. Late night is no longer all-or-nothing; it’s an all-you-can eat buffet. Thanks to the Internet, you can sample as many late-night clips from as many late-night shows as you’d like.
When Letterman lost the Tonight Show job to Leno in 1991 (Leno took over for Johnny Carson a year later), one mark against him had been concern over whether Letterman’s puckish routine could translate to a “traditional” 11:30 audience. Could Letterman sand down the edges to make his show, and himself, palatable to Carson’s crowd? NBC didn’t think so, and went for the safer choice: Leno.
In 2010, months after passing the Tonight Show baton to O’Brien, NBC did it again, panicking that Leno’s staid Tonight audience was rejecting the sharper O’Brien. Out went the fusion cuisine, back in went the comfort food. And once again, you were either a Letterman person or a Leno person.
Or were you? Kimmel, the little engine that could since premiering on ABC back in 2003, had begun changing the rules of late night, along with Stewart, Colbert, and O’Brien’s Late Night replacement, Fallon. As Kimmel’s clips began going viral (starting with Sarah Silverman’s “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” song, featuring Damon himself), it suddenly became apparent that it was possible to have your cake and eat someone else’s too. You could watch Letterman at night and the following morning, catch up with a hilarious Kimmel clip featuring parents pranking their kids by telling them they’d eaten all their Halloween candy. Fallon’s most memorable Late Night segments—performing Carly Rae Jespen’s “Call Me Maybe” with children’s instruments, his recurring Downton Abbey spoof Downton Sixby—were routinely viewed, and shared, online by audiences who had never seen him at 12:30. Unlike Letterman and Leno, these upstart hosts shared a comic sensibility, and an audience overlap, and thanks to the Internet, it was suddenly easy to keep up with them all.
By the time ABC shifted Kimmel to 11:35 in January 2013, late-night success no longer revolved around who could offer the most traditional show to viewers sticking around after their local news. It was about who could engage with viewers, not just in the wee hours of the morning, but online.
Which left Leno and, surprisingly, Letterman, as the odd men out. Ironically, had the Internet existed during Letterman’s scrappy Late Night days, he would have been King of YouTube. Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, Will It Float?, his uproarious L.A. fast food car trip with Zsa Zsa Gabor—audiences would have eaten those segments up online. And then, when it came time to replace Carson as Tonight Show host, NBC likely would have come to a very different decision.
Related: Which Colbert Will We See on CBS?
When he was still fighting Leno for late-night dominance a decade ago, Letterman certainly would have embraced the Internet. But Letterman—who innovated the late-night genre even more than even Carson did, and has inspired seemingly every host and show that has followed him—has largely checked out during the twilight of his career. He doesn’t even attend rehearsals anymore.
This year, as the two Jimmys faced off against him—both at 11:35 and online—he was like the forgotten man off to the side. On YouTube, Letterman was no match for his spry, versatile competition. Fallon’s “Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing” sketch with Will Smith, which aired during his debut Tonight, has already logged 13.8 million YouTube views. And while Fallon’s clips are watched as much as four times more than Kimmel’s on average, Kimmel, too, is a beast online. More than 30 million people have seen Kimmel’s various YouTube challenges (like the Halloween candy), while upwards of 17 million watch his segments in which celebrities read mean tweets about themselves. Letterman, meanwhile, barely gets above 100,000 views. (His most-watched YouTube segment? His retirement announcement, with 3.2 million views.)
Every night, Fallon and Kimmel—along with Stewart, Colbert and new Late Night host Seth Meyers—are bringing fresh, Internet-friendly ideas to late-night. (That said, can someone take the innovation a step further and finally ditch the mustiest of talk show staples: the curtain, the suit, the desk, the couch and the opening monologue? Thanks!) As a result, audiences are demanding more as well. If a show books Brad Pitt, they’d better get him to do a lot more than recite a canned anecdote about his latest film. He needs to play ball—and if he does, the YouTube gods will probably smile on him.
As Les Moonves has long promised, CBS was always going to let Letterman go out on his terms (i.e. not like NBC, which pushed Leno out not once but twice). And once he did, announcing his retirement on April 3, the choice to replace him was obvious. It had to be Colbert, who like Kimmel and Fallon, is both popular with late-night audience and has a robust Internet following. And if the older CBS crowd that sticks around after CSI and NCIS doesn’t spark to him as well, CBS won’t bat an eye.
Yes, there will be plenty of hand-wringing during the next year (Letterman hasn’t settled on an end date yet but plans to depart in early 2015; Colbert won’t start until after that) over whether Colbert can shed his “Stephen Colbert” Colbert Report persona and successfully host a show as himself. But he’s already a seasoned pro at connecting with audiences both on TV and online, which is essential for a modern-day late-night host.
And no matter what he does, I’ll be watching. Not at 11:35 of course, but the next day, along with the rest of the Internet. After all, as Kimmel, Fallon, and Colbert have proven time and again, “Late-night” is now late-night in name only.