Friday, April 11, 2014

Welcome to the new 11:30, bitch:
Colbert, Letterman and the late-night landscape


DAVID LETTERMAN, the host of “The Late Show” on CBS, dropped the first Florsheim shoe in his own inimitable fashion on April 3, recalling a conversation with CBS president Leslie Moonves. “And I said ‘Leslie, it’s been great, you’ve been great, and the network has been great, but I’m retiring.’”

“I just want to reiterate my thanks for the support from the network, all of the people who have worked here, all of the people in the theater, all the people on the staff, everybody at home, thank you very much,” Letterman said.

“What this means now, is that Paul and I can be married ... we don’t have the timetable for this precisely down – I think it will be at least a year or so, but sometime in the not too distant future, 2015 for the love of God, in fact, Paul and I will be wrapping things up."

By the time Letterman hangs ‘em up, he will have hosted CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" for 22 years. He held down a similar gig at NBC's "Late Night" for 11 years before then. And make of this what you will: According to The Wrap, April 4, Letterman’s announcement that he was leaving won the show its best ratings since October 2012.

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We might have seen this coming. In a recent taping of “The Late Show,” Letterman sat with Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor and frequent “Late Show” guest. They talked about this & that, but Letterman never missed the chance to infantilize his new late-night competitor (on NBC) as “Little Jimmy Fallon.”

But even then, Letterman knew better. In its five seasons, “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” won Emmy nominations every year since 2010. Fallon, simply put, is an overachiever’s overachiever. A “Saturday Night Live” veteran, Fallon is already a walking multihyphenate: actor, singer, guitarist, pianist, production company chief, and (as I noted back in January) “altogether a more kinetic television presence than Letterman has been in years.”

The generational shift of Fallon’s rise and Letterman’s departure was only partly complete with Dave’s announcement. The other shoe dropped on April 10 when CBS announced that Stephen Colbert, namesake of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, would replace Letterman, in a five-year deal worth eleven boatloads of money.

Making his own announcement, Colbert said, "Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career. I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead. I’m thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”

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BEFORE COLBERT was announced, some in the media wondered if CBS had the stones to make a daring new hire for one of the more coveted positions in television. An abundance of names were floated: Chelsea Handler, Ellen DeGeneres (fresh from her Oscar-host gig), Craig Ferguson, Conan O’Brien, Neil Patrick Harris — even Louis C.K., for the love of God!

Eric Deggans, writing Saturday in “Code Switch” on the NPR Web site, asked the inevitable question:

“Now that David Letterman has finally confirmed plans to retire, it seems necessary to ask the same question which surfaces every time there's a shuffle in the late night TV lineup: “Why are there so many white guys dominating late night talk show television?

“The simple answer is that TV programmers mostly cast for their target audience. So daytime TV is bursting with Ellens and Oprahs, Latifahs and Katies, Barbaras and Julies, while nighttime runneth over with Jons, Jimmys, Davids, Conans, Stephens, Craigys and even a Carson or two.

“But while daytime has the occasional Steve Harvey, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, late night has mostly been the province of the smart-alecky white guy. I don't expect CBS to change this, given how important the Letterman succession will be for them.”

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But that’s not really right. The real target audience — for late-night TV, for prime-time TV, for morning programs, for every part of the broadcast day — is eyeballs, and as many of them as a network can attract regardless of race, color or creed. Deggans’ devil’s-advocate argument presumes the existence, and by extension the benefit, of some voluntary televisual segregation at work, the assumption that minority Americans turn their TV sets off with the last grin from the anchors of the late local news — negating the ability for minorities to be part of that target audience.

What would account for the fact of African Americans staying up to watch late-night show guests that matter to them, like Denzel Washington and Will Smith, Steve McQueen and Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Hart and Michael Strahan, Lupita Nyong’o and a certain African American president of the United States? Late-night TV matters to blacks and browns. The problem is that late-night TV viewing by blacks and browns doesn’t matter to the risk-averse suits making the programming decisions at the networks.

Comfortable with a proven template for success — proven over generations — Big TV is loathe to tamper with a solidly established formula. This probably goes double for CBS, the Tiffany network whose polished, procedural, traditionalist culture is a cornerstone of its public identity. That entrenchment into the familiar ground of the status quo could have been a setback for CBS. The Colbert hire negates that.

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CBS SUFFERS by comparison with NBC in not having a tradition of late-night comedic talent — a farm team, if you will — from which to draw a successor to a standing program. NBC’s had that luxury for generations with “The Tonight Show” (in incarnations going back to 1960), “Saturday Night Live” (which first aired in 1975) and the “Late Night” franchise, just taken over by Seth Meyers.

So whoever CBS got to replace Letterman had to be a poach from another network. But ironically enough, the news of Letterman’s departure was an opportunity for CBS to undertake a departure from popular expectations. Whoever they brought in would inevitably be compared to Letterman anyway; why not make the most of it? That’s exactly what CBS did.

We could also be sure whoever inherited Letterman’s perch would reflect the generational shift that’s underway throughout television. For a network whose strong prime-time ratings reveal an ability to think outside the box, the replacement for the eminence grise of late-night television could have indicated a break with assumptions about race or gender, or about race and gender — a network able, ready and willing to think “What box?”

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The fact that CBS tapped Colbert for the top job shrewdly satisfies those popular expectations and frustrates them at the same time. True enough, Colbert’s a white guy and as such is heir to the late-night tradition (“tradition” being another way of saying “habit”). But while Colbert dovetails with late-night casting history, he breaks with his predecessors in another powerful way.

You no doubt noticed that as soon as the news of Colbert taking over “Late Show” was out, conservative commentators and analysts went nuts. The long knives weren’t enough this time; they went for the machetes. Elias Isquith at Salon surveyed some of the more angrily passive-aggressive tweets from Thursday.

Ben Shapiro, a writer for Breitbart, tweeted: “In search of an even more niche audience, CBS has now hired a Comedy Central host doing an impersonation of a Fox News personality.” John Nolte, also of Breitbart, tweeted: “Low-Rated Hyper-Partisan Lefty to Replace David Letterman.”

“Colbert is a character actor. Not a Letterman host,” tweet-sniffed Dana Loesch, a conservative radio host.

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And of course it wouldn’t be a day with the sun in the sky if we didn’t hear from talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh, who hyperventilated that Colbert’s ascension was nothing less than a declaration of war on the American “heartland” and “a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatives.

“What this hire means is a redefinition of what is funny and a redefinition of what is comedy, and there’s blowing up the 11:30 format under the guise that the world’s changing.”

“It’s media planting a flag here. Maybe even media’s last stand. It’s a declaration,” he said on April 3. “There’s no unity in this hire. They’ve hired a partisan, so-called comedian to run a comedy show.”

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WELCOME TO 11:30, bitch,” Colbert famously said to Jimmy Fallon on Feb. 17, the night Fallon debuted on “The Tonight Show.” It was a shot across the bow from someone at a network that was hardly a competitor and just barely a rival for NBC’s reach. That all changes next year.

That’s when Colbert assumes his position in a different 11:30, one with a hell of a lot more eyeballs than he ever had at Comedy Central. And as Colbert (himself a multihyphenate presence in the culture) moves to CBS, there are already expectations. The Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” is a snarky, hyper-patriotic, relentlessly self-centered conservative — a character he's portrays on the Emmy-winning show on a network dedicated to comedy.

Pete Dominck at The Daily Beast asked the question straight up: “Of course he’ll drop the character and he’ll get the ratings. But will we let him leave the ‘Report’ behind?”

On CBS, Colbert will need to widen the strike zone of his identity. The act of taking the helm of this highly-rated late-night show on a legacy broadcast network makes him a character by definition. It also makes him, by definition, the television personality who embodies the national mood, assumes the national soapbox — and sometimes does so in a context that has nothing to do with comedy. Can the Great and Powerful Col-bear emerge from behind the curtain and be himself? And when the time comes … can he be one of us?

Stephen Colbert may be the latest white guy to sit atop the Olympus of late-night TV, but he’s got the pedigree and versatility for taking late-night in a new direction. Having already aroused the ire of the conservatives he lampoons, and taking over in 2015 (the year before the next presidential election) with a bigger audience, he’ll be as much a lightning rod in the political culture as he is in the teleculture. But he’ll be under pressure to consistently bring the ratings in a way he never was as a high-fructose, all-beef kingmaker at Comedy Central. Late-night’s about to get even more interesting.

Image credits: Letterman: CBS/Worldwide Pants. Colbert top: Jason DeCrow/Invision/AP. O'Brien: NBC.  President Obama and Letterman: CBS/Worldwide Pants. Colbert lower: Via The Huffington Post.

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