Flipping a channel is not a work of activism. But as our politics become increasingly ubiquitous and distractions feel increasingly futile, early signs indicate that viewers are starting to turn toward the late-night host with a proven capacity to address them. For his first new shows after Donald Trump’s inauguration following a week of reruns, Stephen Colbert won the contest he’d all but conceded more than a year into his Late Show run: He beat Jimmy Fallon in the ratings.
Colbert has had a very good couple of weeks. After a conspicuous Emmy snub when the nominations came out last July and a couple of high-profile hosting gigs for follow-up James Corden (Grammys and Tonys), Colbert himself was forced to address rumors that CBS would switch their time slots. The Republican National Convention marked an inflection point in Colbert’s broadcast reputation, if not his ratings, as he and his writers finally embraced the pointed satire he’d made his name on, then pivoted away from. The execution wasn’t always perfect; in hindsight, the most shocking upset in the history of our political system wasn’t the best time to be doing a live show. But at least Colbert was there, processing his shock with us.
That approach, which Colbert has more or less maintained since the summer, finally seems to be paying off. First, a pre-inauguration lift paired with a significant drop for Fallon’s Tonight Show brought the two competitors the closest they’d ever been in raw viewership. (Both notched just under 3 million people.) Then Colbert finally landed a major awards show, working a Sean Spicer dig into an announcement sent out a remarkable eight months in advance of the 2017 Emmys’ September broadcast, apparently to signal CBS’s institutional support as early as possible. And now, after a weeklong hiatus that threatened to slow his momentum, Colbert has closed the gap and finished first in the overnights.
What, exactly, helped draw those numbers? On Monday, Colbert’s first monologue of the Trump presidency set the tone: “Go on vacation, they said! The country will still be here when you get back, they said!” Last night, he brought on a bewigged Jon Stewart, who’s stopped by with increasing frequency since the show started skewing more topical. Stewart delivered a characteristically half-funny, half-somber call to action: “I, Donald J. Trump, am exhausting because it is going to take … every institutional check and balance this great country can muster to keep me, Donald J. Trump, from going full Palpatine.” Compare that to yet another softball impression from Fallon. (An excerpt from Jimmy-as-Donny’s “Huge Wheel of Decisions”: “Outlaw falafel!”)
The contrast is easy to psychoanalyze. Fallon is at his most effective when he opts for pure escapism — like reading bad Yelp reviews with Aziz Ansari. But pure escapism doesn’t work in an environment where you can’t escape the world, nor do you necessarily want to: It’s delaying your flights, or keeping a friend from leaving the country, or threatening to affect your health care. Perhaps we’re looking for a host who addresses our reality rather than one who creates an alternate one for us to slip into.
A few caveats before crowning Colbert the new king of 11:35. One is that, while the race for the most overall viewers is newly competitive, Fallon’s dominance in the 18–49 demographic, i.e., the age group advertisers want most badly to see their products, remains all but absolute. Colbert’s audience skews older; after all, he is still on CBS. And then there’s the microscopic sample size. A couple weeks’ worth of trend does not a permanent triumph make.
That said, entertainers thrive when their sensibility matches the times’ — and when the times change, so does our taste in entertainment. Colbert has been fired up for a few months. Perhaps we’re just now catching up to him.