Late Risers

Over the summer, two of the most important seats in late-night television were vacated. Unlike last year, when NBC’s The Tonight Show promoted Late Night host Jimmy Fallon and CBS’ The Late Late Show traded like for like – to maintain the quota of British late-night hosts at exactly one – each of the replacements was not the heir apparent. Host of CBS’ Late Show David Letterman was succeeded by Stephen Colbert, who came in from Comedy Central, having been host of The Colbert Report and contributor to The Daily Show, and not long-time Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, Letterman’s protégé who had, like his mentor, smashed the orthodoxy of the genre. At least Colbert was recognized as a great innovator and radical presence on TV – as well as a nifty enough entertainer – when he was awarded the Late Show crown. Utterly unlike newcomer Trevor Noah, who was bumped several pay grades when he went from Daily Show contributor to taking Jon Stewart’s job as host. In fact, Colbert was the more likely of the two to take over The Daily Show. Former contributor and frequent guest host John Oliver was a shoo-in to take over until HBO made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. After that, the choice was anyone’s guess. But Noah was no-one’s.

That's Colbert baby!

That’s Colbert baby!

Noah and Colbert have wildly different briefs. To emulate Letterman, Colbert is obliged to be as challenging and groundbreaking as possible while Noah is the steward of a culturally necessary ritual, and cannot dismantle its beloved format. As such, Noah might seem to have the harder job. But Colbert’s fluent presentation masks his deft deconstruction of late-night talk formula. He has replaced the monologue with political analyses. Guests tend to be public figures with cultural significance rather than celebrities hawking their wares. It’s a forum for news and current affairs and a showcase for high culture. Fallon’s breakthroughs by contrast have been primarily vaudevillian and even Ferguson’s reinvention of the genre as burlesque slapstick went in the opposite direction to Colbert. It’s not just the fluency with which these changes have been implemented, but also how assured, joyous and endearing Colbert is while doing it. This he may have learnt from Fallon’s head-start, but Colbert pursues it the name of something far more significant. The sad irony is that Colbert is exactly the personality The Daily Show needed to preserve its legacy, while Noah is not. Two weeks in to Noah’s reign and the added value of Jon Stewart’s easy-going charm has finally been calculated in full. A solid comic mind is simply not enough.

Stewart covered a multitude of sins with his asides and interludes of self-mocking, and without them we can see just how little content there is in the average Daily Show news item. Noah has exposed this, but I don’t level the blame at him. It takes a particularly kind of host – a Letterman or Carson, for example – to engage the audience without losing them when holes appear in the format. Noah has his long, pregnant smile, but to the live studio audience and the viewers at home, it reads as a stumble or a stall, even in the strongest segments like his brilliant mash-up of the Trump mythos with that of African dictatorship. Moments like this reassure us that the quality of mock-journalism has not dropped off, but in this case a pair of safe hands will not suffice. We need someone who can convince us they’ve revolutionized The Daily Show when nothing has changed, not a competent caretaker. Conversely, Colbert’s Late Show coup seemed bloodless, yet was a conceptual genocide. Fallon has proved it’s possible to succeed in late-night television by being a vessel for the greatness of others, and indeed Stewart leaned on Oliver and Colbert in exactly that way when they were Daily Show contributors, so Noah cannot be written off yet.

Oh no, they forgot to change the titles!

Oh no, they forgot to change the titles!

The Daily Show and Late Show are probably the two late-night talk formats that matter most culturally – with the possible exception of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk. The former is so because it is the closest America has to a reliable news source; the latter because Letterman made it a hotbed of comic artistry in the 90s. But because American TV is an inherently commercial animal, they require a certain kind of salesmanship to help audiences buy into them. Colbert’s hate-resistant persona is the perfect medium while Noah’s workmanlike anonymity may not be, at least not in the long-term. But can Colbert sustain these unimaginable highs?

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