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Colbert’s Conflicting Course

As ‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’ nears the one-year mark, its host appears to be pulled in different directions. The result: a product that looks simultaneously more and less like late-night TV — and a show that lacks a clear identity.

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Here’s how you know The Late Show With Stephen Colbert has been with us for a while: One of the two big-name guests Colbert picked to pump up his September 2015 network debut was Jeb Bush. During the premiere, at Colbert’s prompting, Bush explained the thinking behind his logo’s exclamation point, self-evidently saying, “It connotes excitement.” By December, much of the excitement had seeped from both Jeb’s and Colbert’s campaigns; Jeb dropped the exclamation point, and The Hollywood Reporter wrote that The Tonight Show’s ratings titan Jimmy Fallon had “crushed” Colbert’s hopes of leading his time slot.

Had it continued without interruption, Wednesday night would have marked the 200th airing of The Late Show, but the program is currently rerunning old segments while a scruffy, vacationing Colbert pops into pubs. Three weeks from today, his show will observe (if not unreservedly celebrate) its one-year anniversary. During that period — relatively brief, by late-night standards — The Late Show has seen its viewership stagnate, fumbled its football lead-in, gotten a new showrunner, weathered persistent rumors about being bumped by Late Late Show host James Corden, and enjoyed a brief ratings revival driven by live convention coverage, assists from Jon Stewart, and a cameo from Colbert’s Comedy Central persona. Amid the downs and ups, Colbert has tried to carve out common ground between his high-brow inclinations and the swaths of the country that aren’t eager for an intellectual challenge right before bed. Lately, he’s seemed to change course in two different directions, returning to his roots in some ways while in others ranging even further afield.

According to 2015 research by Amy Bree Becker, an assistant professor of communications at Loyola University Maryland, actors accounted for only 12.3 percent of guests on The Colbert Report. In-character Colbert was a wonk even compared to Stewart, who drafted actors for The Daily Show 27.3 percent of the time from 2003–14, more often than he pulled people from any other occupation. On The Colbert Report, actors were outnumbered by journalists (who represented almost a quarter of guests), politicians, and academics.

During The Late Show’s first few months, Colbert leaned toward the lowest common denominator but refused to surrender completely to the realities of late night. In February, I broke down Colbert’s booking through his first 100 episodes and found that only 42.8 percent of his interviewees had been actors, compared to 68.7 percent for Jimmy Kimmel and 65.1 percent for Fallon over the same span. Colbert made up the difference by drawing more heavily from less traditionally tabloid-oriented fields, calling on the political figures, writers, business leaders, and scientists who’d sustained him in his old digs even though The Late Show’s broader audience didn’t always allow the in-depth discussions that The Colbert Report had been known for. The significantly sub-Fallon (and even sub-late-Letterman) ratings and lackluster online presence that ensued suggested that the formula wasn’t working. “If Colbert wants to take the ratings title in his time slot,” I concluded, “he may have to find ways to make viewers more interested in the guests he wants to talk to, or consider catering more to a mainstream crowd.”

It looks like he went with the latter approach. Unlike Kramer on the Merv Griffin Show set, Colbert didn’t shut down, but his retooling has carried him closer to the well-worn center of the late-night landscape. Even using the same conservative system I employed in my previous article, which classifies guests based on what they’re appearing to promote — e.g., Jeff Daniels goes down as a “musician,” not an actor, when he’s pushing his new single — it’s clear that Colbert has become as actor-reliant as anyone. Since his hundredth episode, 66.3 percent of his interview subjects have been actors, which would have slotted him in right between Jimmy Kimmel and Fallon during the period I previously studied. He’s also added uneven, often celebrity-based cold opens and more end-of-show stand-up segments, not to mention a blasé-looking juggler.

The result is a mix of encouraging and discouraging developments. Even as Colbert has shown flashes of his incisive, news-sensitive self since the show’s new showrunner, CBS This Morning vet Chris Licht, lightened the host’s obligations behind the scenes, the program has doubled down on dullness elsewhere. Colbert followed up his second convention week with three shows that featured five actors plus wrestler John Cena (so, six actors, essentially). He can still talk astronomy with Neil deGrasse Tyson (The Colbert Report’s most prolific guest) without Ice Age: Collision Course coming up, but that sort of educational segment has grown rarer.

Relieved to have at least temporarily retired his alter ego in the lead-up to last year’s premiere, a confident Colbert declared, “Now I can be a comedian.” Unfortunately, his new format has forced him to play another kind of character — one that pretends to care deeply about celebrity backstories and pre-rehearsed anecdotes despite the fact that those aspects of late night are often unfunny. Colbert doesn’t feign interest as well as Fallon, who puts aside any pretense of offering substantive banter and either allows his guests to showcase their most salient skills or sets them up to do something silly that’s endearingly way out of their wheelhouse. Colbert often asks his entertainers to talk, which they don’t always do as adeptly as he does. Nor is his performance flawless. Would you rather watch Colbert conduct an awkward, unenlightening interview with a pop star less than half his age, or see that same pop star spin the Wheel of Musical Impressions? Roughly 38 times as many YouTube viewers have opted, understandably, to see the singer sing.

Colbert can be compelling outside of the skin he shed when he left The Report, but as long as he’s bound by convention (as opposed to conventions), he’ll be a talented player stuck in a scoring system that doesn’t suit his skills. That’s what made last week’s announcement that Colbert could host an election-night special on Showtime between Late Show episodes so intriguing — particularly Showtime president David Nevins’ claim that Colbert has “had a good time being more political,” which he’ll get to do again on the Late Show’s live post-debate performances. If the bug is still there, it’s going to keep coming out, and at this point that probably can’t be a bad thing. Politics and social commentary are tools Colbert’s many competitors either don’t have or don’t wield as well as he does, although those assets also carry greater risks. The wrong comment or perceived partisan skew could alienate his CBS audience, a lesser concern with the well-packaged pablum that some of his competitors peddle.

Hardcore Colbert fans might like The Late Show more if Colbert replaced his “celebrities plugging products” segments with politics or his pre-show professions of love and peacocking about Lord of the Rings, but they might be in the minority. And it’s not as if Colbert is dragging down the network with his still-probably-profitable show. Jockeying with (and often surpassing) Kimmel in the race for Fallon’s leavings, he’s still swimming in a deeper pool than he ever did at Comedy Central — his average audience during the week of the RNC was bigger than that of The Colbert Report’s record finale. Colbert is doing OK, but that’s seen as insufficient because he conditioned fans of his old show to expect the exceptional. Nor has he been helped by the contrast with Corden, who’s landed an Emmy nomination and multiple spinoff series since mid-July.

“I’m optimistic that [Colbert will] do well overall on CBS and build a bigger audience beyond those who want him for his political satire,” Becker said via email. “I think that while we may see more entertainment-oriented guests than politicians on his show, we will still see more discussion of politics and policy than we would if Letterman was still the host.”

Faced with the Fallon problem, Colbert and Licht have altered their tactics, moving to an “If you can’t beat him, book like him” model. But Colbert still doesn’t do virality very well, which threatens to make his newfound affinity for actors nothing but a new way of being beaten. The key for Colbert is to keep incorporating the distinctive strengths of the guy who got the job, instead of squeezing into a mold that only makes him more forgettable. After all, Fallon is a master of mimicry, too.