Post Super Bowl programming deserves sports parlance as much as anything and in the case of CBS this year you could describe it as Stephen Colbert fumbled a great opportunity and James Corden showed up to play.
Late Night Talk Show Hosts are cults of personalities. Always have been. Johnny Carson the story goes turned to a young producer once about a show he was about to start. The producer had been explaining the skits, the formula, the guests, the production values. When the producer was done Carson leaned in and told him “These shows are all about the guy behind the desk.” They are and I can tell you this because without my guys Craig Ferguson and David Letterman the genre has held less appeal this past year. All that remain are talented entertainers but they’re not Craig Ferguson and David Letterman and so I have not felt compelled to write about them. Where I live and with the technology I have I semi-regularly catch whole shows of Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Jimmy Fallon. I chase down viral bits from Conan, Kimmel and Meyers on YouTube. Alas I’m not catching anything from Comedy Central because “I’m an overseas viewer.” Their loss or mine? Who knows in this social media driven culture. What I see I like and champion.
I love Mean Tweets, Halloween pranks not so much. Kimmel general does well with his celebrity interviews and can engage politicians well enough. For example his opening up of Harrison Ford with a Chewbacca recurring bit is gold, Jimmy’s search for Austin’s Best BBQ which parodied The Bachelor was neat too. The stuff with Matt Damon is brilliant too even if the peak was that clip with Sarah Silverman all those years ago now.
Coco’s ratings scores have been as low as 300,000 viewers during the low season and he has never crested a million on a regular night in years. Yet a little Cuban special snagged two million viewers taking in DVR recordings after the telecast last year. Relegated to TBS O’Brien has a social media presence and a youthful demographic that belies his years. He is the epitome of punching above his weight. Kids watching him now may not even know about the Leno fiasco of ’09 but they know about Uber, Tinder and Grinder, Ride Along with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, Call of Duty, Archer, Magic Mike XXL and crucially they know funny and Conan O’Brien remains as funny as he has ever been. At 53 he is out doing remotes when Letterman was sending Biff Henderson and Rupert Jee into the fray. His cultural reach far exceeds his real numbers. Sure some of the interviews are boring, sure sometimes the monologue is lame. Who cares? This man shows up to work again and again and rather than coasting on old NBC bits he’s been reinventing himself for a new generation. GO COCO!
Fallon is King and moment to moment I doubt there’s anybody funnier that’s why he regularly rates higher than his competitors. You tune in for Trump on Colbert. You watch Fallon no matter who’s appearing because Fallon is appearing. His monologues actually make me laugh; he has an easy rapport with his house band The Roots which amongst being bonafide musicians all have unique personalities which are comfortable to get involved in sketches and on the spot riffing. It’s true they’ve had six years to get this down pat but they’re running like a well-oiled machine at this point. The question remains when will we get tired of this routine. Will Fallon ever mature into the statesman Carson and Letterman became? Does it really matter? Jimmy Fallon has no edge, so what? Late last year he asked a question of Trump who replied “These were not the question we agreed to.” In this simple gesture he made Jimmy Fallon more badass than any question he was going to ask would have made him. He once turned to Hilary Clinton and asked “Why don’t you release the e-mails? I’m sick of hearing about it, aren’t you?” and she agreed. He asked the question and he put it in terms that were on most American’s minds. Frustratingly they just moved on but that is not to say Fallon is a push over. He has actually been very steadfast that he wants to make a fun show and he wants his guests to have fun on his show like everybody else. You can tell Fallon’s politics as clearly as Colbert but like Conan O’Brien his show is not about politics but about having fun. As long as that is happening I don’t think he’s going anywhere. Can he be the fun guy for multiple generations? Can he do dance offs with the next pop sensation when he’s 55 or will it lose something when it isn’t a peer like Justin Timberlake? Time will tell but the man is incredibly talented, hardworking and he has the most entertaining show on late night television consistently. However short the reign he has not been a flash in the pan. He is the current King of Late Night Television. Fact.
Colbert is booking CEOs, civil rights leaders and journalists in a way nobody else on network late night television is. This is classic counter programming which won’t place him in No.1 but will hopefully snag enough of a high income audience to justify his existence. The thinking person’s alternative though lost to Kimmel and Meyers throughout the month of December and those guys provide some of what he is selling to audiences as well. That makes it tricky. Plus nobody really bitches about Meyers lack of viralness because his lead in from Fallon makes him the highest rated in his timeslot by a country mile. The Colbert Report was so good for so long that we took for granted what an upheaval a new show would be. Colbert a former improve actor could sing and dance, his quick wit and intelligence was undeniable, his interviews in his old persona were actually really insightful and on top of it all he had a youthful openness, a yearning to ask questions and find answers rather than accuse and demean. Yet The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has been rife with teething problems of any first year out program. Jon Batiste is a talented musician and Colbert and he appear to genuinely like the other but chemistry comes from a variety of factors and right now… they don’t have it. Joe Biden’s interview on Colbert was a gift that reminds us what a great television moment of authenticity can be. A man clearly laying bare his emotions in a public forum without anything to gain from it as it turned out since he didn’t end up running.
I like a lot of the sketches Colbert has established written by his clever writers like “A Big Furry Hat” and even more so “Big Thoughts with even Bigger Stars.” Yet Colbert’s celebrity interviews are often as awkward as Fallon’s ass-kissing routine where everyone is so great and so funny. An easy rapport with Chris Pine and Josh Brolin recently had me questioning why can’t all Colbert interviews be like that? This may not be entirely fair for someone who just renovated a theatre on Broadway and has big numbers in it but Colbert doesn’t seem to do remotes. Neither does Fallon to an extent but you feel it with Colbert. The guy is busting his ass, dabbling in live shows and doing five nights a week but when you take a break six weeks after your debut it feels lazy.
Which brings us to the Superbowl.
CBS took the unprecedented step of following their Super Bowl 50 coverage with a live telecast of their late night programs The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show with James Corden. The Late Show started strong with a monologue that involved him throwing the football to first soldiers overseas, an astronaut and then the President. It’s the kind of extra expense stuff you save for such shows which also tugs at the heart strings of Americana. Support the troops, we can reach outer space and our Commander in Chief enjoys a throw of the ole pigskin as much as we all do. It got even better when Colbert involved in some meta humour. The President pointed out he was in a pre-taped bit to which the host insisted he was doing the show live. President Obama proved his point by bringing Colbert onscreen in the bit to talk to his live studio self. It was a neat sketch and was true to Stephen’s comic sensibilities.
Unfortunately the rest of the show was not as strong at all. Colbert followed with an interview with Tina Fey and Margot Robbie that was average despite Fey usually being funny. It was awkwardly interrupted by a cross to the Super Bowl stadium to have a satellite interview with MVP winner Von Miller. When it concluded Fey joked “Now about this movie.” Will Ferrell followed with a neat joke about being a new animal expert for the show and refusing to talk about Zoolander 2 which he was there to spruik. Yet I couldn’t help but flashback to his lip sync battle with Kevin Hart last year on Fallon and just feel these were half measures. A popular sketch from Key and Poole related to football also made an appearance before finally Megyn Kelly showed up to engage Colbert in the type of interview that he’s good at but at that point the hour had drawn near. 22,000,000 viewers watched this fucking show. Two decades ago at the height of his powers with a four network landscape and a Winter Olympics lead in David Letterman mustered 14 million on a weeknight. Last year when he retired he pulled 13.7 million. You’ll never get 22 million again, this was a golden opportunity to draw a wide net and grab some extra casual viewers over the long haul to hopefully remain a viable competitor. To be fair it wasn’t for lack of tyring, Key and Poole, Fey and Ferrell are all comedy superstars and were well chosen. They referenced football, they got the President and the First Lady to show up and Megyn Kelly is a high profile reporter and brings an audience that doesn’t tune into Colbert. It was the kind of aisle crossing inclusivity the late show host has practiced since he booked Jeb Bush on his first night on CBS. Yet it didn’t flow seamlessly, it was a mess of ideas and priorities. Look here’s celebrities but we’ve got to cross to an actual footballer. Here’s a sketch from another show because it involves football which means it will be fifty minutes before I talk to Megyn Kelly which arguably is going to be the best bit but will not be funny and we need to be funny right?
James Corden On The Other Hand
The Late Late Show followed and scored a franchise high of 5 million which is impressive when you consider some affiliates were going with local news at that point after cutting Colbert’s last few minutes. So let’s talk about James Corden. James Corden a portly British television and theatre star has spent twelve months on his show embracing American culture including kicking a half time field goal at a local game and hanging out at a tailgate party.
As a result when he got engaged with elements of the Super Bowl for his show it seemed more authentic and he more comfortable. Unlike Fallon and like Colbert he stayed in his home town and his home theatre but he did send his parents down to the Super Bowl to report from the field which was surprisingly funny and a little moving. Their son has been successful in the arts for a while now but in their bits there is a touch of grounded people marvelling at the opportunities afforded them and a wicked unfiltered sense of humour about life in general. James Corden had a great gag putting all Denver Bronco supporters in his studio and leaving Carolina Panther supporters in the car park where they set up rain machines to pour water on them before making it snow in L.A. Crossing back later in the show to show them huddled in ponchos he offered snacks for them punching through corn chips and dip through the rain machines. It is humour with a bit of bite but then the Bud Light crew showed up for the Panther fans and all was well. Corden was due to interview Peyton Manning but instead his bandleader Reggie Watts played a big musical number throughout before they lost the satellite feed. It’s a re-occurring gag they’ve done before and shows that Corden is prepared to be the butt of jokes as much as Panther fans. Referencing nostalgia like a boss James also starred in a parody of a classic Super Bowl advertisement with original star Cindy Crawford. Finally two strong bits that Corden does were brought into the show. He roped in young and hip performers Anna Kendrick, Adam Devine and Zac Effron to go through every sports movie in 7 minutes. It was a bigger scale version of the silly, low tech and funny sketch that has met with some success for him before. You know?! Kind of what you’re supposed to do with a post Super Bowl audience.
Following this formula he did a similar thing with his signature sketch- he did Carpool Karaoke with Elton John. This part of the show referenced nothing about the Super Bowl but it was Corden’s superstar sketch with a major superstar in it for his biggest audience ever. That’s how you do it. By organically filling the rest of the show with football the Elton John bit did not need it and since Carpool Karaoke is such a signature Corden bit its inclusion did not feel awkward or out of place either in the Super Bowl special. Speaking of Carpool Karaoke, a recent one with Adele has hit 67,000,000 views on YouTube. That’s more than anything on YouTube from any late night TV show. The Late Late Show with James Corden is not perfect but I marvel sometimes at it. It has a spirit of fun, has established its own identity within weeks of airing for the first time, Corden’s chemistry with Reggie Watts is easy and Watts is not a sidekick but his own thing. One night I tuned in and James Corden and Tori Kelly went out to restaurants in a remote and sang for their supper. Working outside the studio with a shaky premise and uncertain of how crowds are going to react makes for exciting if awkward television. As it advanced Reggie’s house band came out and Tori Kelly got people up and dancing to her song Nobody Love. The punch line made me smile.
Zoologist Jack Hanna of Letterman fame showed up with Betty White a great animal lover along with Amar’e Soudemire. Rachel Platten closed with a powerful rendition of her pop hit Stand By You. My God it was fun!