How Stephen Colbert Became Late Night’s King of Trump Resistance
He may despise Trump’s presidency, but it has given Stephen Colbert rich material—and the possible means by which to emerge victorious over a floundering Jimmy Fallon.
The CBS Late Show host had shown up at the media holiday party on the 30th floor of the network’s “Black Rock” corporate headquarters, and he wasn’t looking for laughs.
The 52-year-old Colbert—who’d been coping for months with industry gossip that the suits would eventually replace him since he began filling David Letterman’s colossal shoes in September 2015—was unsmiling and seemed genuinely gutted at the prospect of Trump becoming the most powerful human on the planet.
Colbert honed his gifts for political satire, impersonating a right-wing Fox News bloviator as the star of Comedy Central’s long-running Colbert Report.
He famously shocked the Washington establishment in 2006 by savagely—and bravely—mocking President George W. Bush to his face at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
But he couldn’t have known in December 2016 that President Trump—aside from peddling falsehoods, threatening immigrants, insulting minorities, disparaging the First Amendment, and upending international alliances—would also sweep his also-ran late-night talk show into first place, interrupting (or possibly even ending) the three-year reign of NBC’s Jimmy Fallon.
Yet, by relentlessly and hilariously ridiculing the orange-hued president and his rabid henchmen in nightly top-of-the-show monologues that sometimes run to an audacious 11 minutes, Colbert has been beating his competition for the past two weeks and thriving as the champion of the late-night resistance.
He has no doubt benefited from the counsel of his Comedy Central mentor, Jon Stewart, a Late Show executive producer and occasional performer.
And by virtue of a nightly audience that averages more than 3 million, Colbert is the leader of a sardonic pack that includes NBC’s Seth Meyers, HBO’s John Oliver and TBS’s Samantha Bee (both Stewart alums), and Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah, a South African who has steadily been climbing the political learning curve since he took over Stewart’s Daily Show perch 15 months ago.
“Since the inauguration, Colbert has been doing 40 percent more Trump jokes than the average of Jimmy Fallon, [ABC’s] Jimmy Kimmel and Trevor Noah,” said George Mason University communications professor S. Robert Lichter, whose Center for Media and Public Affairs has compiled such statistics for decades.
“Trump is a polarizing figure, and I’m sure that Colbert is gaining from his reputation as somebody who sticks pins in the hot air balloons of politicians,” Lichter told The Daily Beast, adding that the talk show host—after struggling in his transition from late-night cable to hit his stride on a broadcast network at 11:35 p.m.—is simply doing what comes naturally. Thus viewers who can’t stand Trump, and even supporters who acknowledge his flaws, have found a congenial home.
“It’s not that he is going after a particular audience; instead, the audience has found him,” Lichter said. “The irony is you’d think you would try to get as big a share of the audience as possible by not taking a show too far in one direction or another; in the past, that would have put you at a competitive disadvantage. But now it’s easier to find a group of people on one side of the political spectrum large enough to be successful.”
As for Colbert, “That has been his whole shtick,” Lichter said, “and it’s clearly working.”
After 1 ½ years of trailing NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in the late-night television sweepstakes, Colbert is suddenly dominating in total viewers, and catching up in the all-important 18-to-49 demographic on which advertising rates are set. (ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel is a distant third.)
Last Wednesday night, Colbert actually tied Fallon in the demo, and you could almost hear the shrieks of pain and panic emanating from 30 Rock. A Tonight Show spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Colbert’s achievement is no small thing. As David Letterman painfully discovered in his late-night struggle against the Tonight Show’s Jay Leno, viewer habits are notoriously resistant to change; after reliably beating Leno for the first couple of years, Letterman’s Late Show audience quickly eroded after a pivotal July 1995 Tonight Show appearance by Hugh Grant—the British film star’s first interview since his arrest for receiving an ill-fated blowjob in Hollywood from a prostitute he’d invited into his rented BMW.
Grant’s guest-shot won an astronomical rating, and introduced millions of new viewers to Leno’s show. After Leno surged into the lead the following month, Letterman never recovered.
Fallon’s much-condemned mussing of Trump’s thatch-roofed coiffure during the Republican nominee’s Tonight Show appearance last September seems, in retrospect, to have been a similar inflection point.
After being heaped with public criticism, Fallon was at pains to defend his affectionate tousling of Trump, along with his softball treatment of a polarizing, foul-mouthed candidate—an interview that seemed, to many, the moral equivalent of fellatio.
“I’m not one of those ‘gotcha’ people,” Fallon lamely told TMZ outside an Emmy after-party, adding that Trump “was a good sport.”
“Have you seen my show? I’m never too hard on anyone,” Fallon defensively explained.
That easygoing, credulous sensibility is decidedly at odds with the prevailing Zeitgeist of verbal abuse and sharp political combat, a Zeitgeist shaped largely by the president and mined effectively by Colbert.
For instance, while Colbert incisively dissected the perverse substance of the president’s wild and crazy press conference on Thursday’s Late Show, Fallon merely went for surface humor, donning his Trump wig and doing his Trump voice in order to repeat the usual Trump catchphrases.
“It felt like a solid reminder of why Fallon has largely avoided political humor at The Tonight Show—it’s never been his forte,” wrote David Sims in The Atlantic. “As an impressionist, going back to his time on Saturday Night Live, he’s always been strong, but he’s better at nailing a celebrity’s cadence than his overall spirit.”
Colbert, by contrast, peppered his Thursday night monologue with video snippets of the Trump’s actual performance and punctuated it with a running commentary. When the president was shown complaining, “I inherited a mess! It’s a mess!,” Colbert shot back, “No, you inherited a fortune. We elected a mess.”
Responding to Trump’s suggestion to American Urban Radio Networks White House correspondent April Ryan, an African American, that she arrange his meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, Colbert mocked Trump’s oblivious subtext of racism: “Oh, you’re a black woman! Can you talk to the Congressional Black Caucus? Can you black people just figure that thing out? You know what? Just forget it! I’ll have Ben Carson do it. Sit down! Sit down!”
On Monday night’s show, Colbert brought his studio audience to a ecstatic roar of approval—along with the familiar Comedy Central chant of “Stephen! Stephen!”—with his savagely funny evisceration of rabid White House aide Stephen Miller.
After playing a clip of the zealous Trump sycophant telling Face the Nation host John Dickerson that “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned,” Colbert burlesqued: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds. Kneel before Zod! Kneel! Kneel! Have John Dickerson washed and brought to Zod’s tent!”
Colbert burlesqued: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds. Kneel before Zod! Kneel! Kneel! Have John Dickerson washed and brought to Zod’s tent!”
Turning conversational, Colbert continued: “‘Will not be questioned?’ Let me test that theory: What the fuck are you talking about?”
The audience went nuts. The four-letter word, of course, was bleeped and Colbert’s snarling lips were pixilated—a razor-sharp cleaver to Fallon’s polenta.
Only six weeks earlier, the talk show host had seemed near tears at Trump’s elevation to power.
During his live Showtime election night special, as the erstwhile star of Celebrity Apprentice was securing his electoral-vote win over Hillary Clinton despite a popular-vote loss of nearly three million, Colbert made little effort to hide his dismay under a blanket of comedic pretense.
“What the fuck is happening?” he demanded, as he entered into Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.
Still, to paraphrase CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, Trump might not be good for America, but he’s been damned good for Colbert.