Early in his career Jay Leno fell out of favor with Johnny Carson. After a few Tonight Show appearances it was clear that he wasn’t Johnny’s cup of tea. Fortunately for Jay, a friend from the West Coast comedy club circuit named David Letterman thought he was great — and Dave had his own late-night talk show on NBC. They developed a routine. Jay would come out and before he had gotten the seat warm Dave would ask him, “What’s your beef?” And off Jay went, robo-joking his way through a killer set. In time, Johnny’s people noticed, and Jay was once again sitting next to the King of the Night. And then eventually behind Johnny’s desk as his replacement.
Soon, however, Jay fell out of favor again, this time with NBC. Johnny’s audience had abandoned the new Tonight Show host, and instead of showing patience with their star, network execs began looking for a Plan B. The pressure on Leno only grew when Letterman, who had also coveted Carson’s desk, signed with CBS, which put him in a promotional rocket that shot to the moon.
This is history some of you know, especially if you watched the recent CNN docuseries The Story of Late Night. But it’s also a parable. Because if you take an extremely ambitious and talented person, make him your biggest star, and then threaten to fire him — not just fire him but walk him through the humiliation of losing one of the most high-profile jobs in show business — you’re going to get a reaction. And Jay Leno, who had already seen his career flash before his eyes once before, most definitely reacted.
That same prospect of humiliation more recently hovered over Stephen Colbert. Handed Letterman’s time slot after 22 years and told, “Go entertain America,” the former star of The Colbert Report tried his level best to do that. But his audience started melting away. Already a distant second to The Tonight Show and its dynamic new host Jimmy Fallon, Colbert was in danger of slipping behind Jimmy Kimmel into third place. That is, if CBS didn’t throw him overboard first.
In that moment — that moment of existential career threat — Stephen Colbert reacted. And he reacted by pulling a Leno out of his hat. Stay with me now, because the parable holds almost perfectly.
When Leno was coming up in the comedy circuit, he was fresh, he was hilarious, he was the comic’s comic. It was only when he was on the ropes at NBC that he brought out the O.J. jokes and the Dancing Itos. The ratings commenced to turn around. “We did tremendous last night,” Leno crowed to an L.A. Times reporter as it was happening. “We got a 6.8 to a 4.1, so we did great.”
Likewise, when Colbert was sinking fast on CBS, he reacted by turning his show into a sanctuary for the anti-Trump resistance. Yes, the new president was a godsend to all topical joke writers with his endless parade of nonsense. But it was the zeal, bordering on moral crusaderism, with which Colbert leaned into Trump that set his show apart from everyone else’s. From the opening pretaped bit to the monologue to interviews with resistance figures from Michael Wolff to Anthony Scaramucci, Colbert's The Late Show completely embraced the political moment.
And it paid off in spades. I don’t know if anyone will ever match Jay Leno’s scorekeeping abilities, but I did find an interview where Colbert admitted to celebrating the moment when his show overtook Fallon’s in the ratings. "The only thing [I recall] is that we bought everybody on the staff pizza," he said. And why not? Colbert’s turnaround is something we hadn't seen in a generation — not since the Dancing Itos took the stage.
Creatively, though, winning has come at a cost. By any measure, Colbert was more clever, more interesting and — to me anyway — far more watchable in his first ten and a half years in late night than he is now. Every Late Show now begins with a cold open showing a news clip, followed by a comedy bit built on the clip, a comedy bit that (and I’m kind of proud of this) I have never once laughed at. That’s followed by a high-energy entrance where Colbert is shown rushing on stage, pursued by a cameraman capturing the thrilling moment where audience meets host, a moment that reminds me of the meet-and-greet Leno did with his audience — a nightly ritual that began when his show was on the brink.
I won’t deny that Colbert and his writers sprinkle gems into every monologue that would be right at home on the old Colbert Report, like the other night when they called Rudy Giuliani “the paparazzi shot of Dorian Gray.” The difference is that it would’ve gotten a bigger response from the studio audience at Comedy Central. (Indeed, moments later Colbert added that Giuliani looked like “a big toe with dentures” and got a louder laugh.) But it’s the accumulated effect, night after night, of taking whatever outrage social media has been in a lather about, translating it into television “comedy,” and basing the whole show on that endorphin boost, that I find exhausting.
Still, it works for his audience, and that’s all that matters. I remember NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer telling me that he never doubted that Leno was the right choice over Letterman because their research found that most people only actually watched Dave’s NBC show twice a week. While Dave was wearing out his audience, Jay was winning them back. But that was a different era, back when (as Jay Leno might say) you could get a 6.8 to your opponent’s 4.1. Now you’re lucky to get a 0.8 in your demo, and you have to factor in YouTube and streaming views.
Yet by any measure, Ohlmeyer’s dictum has proven correct once more. As Jimmy Fallon was wearing out his welcome, Colbert was putting out the welcome mat. While Fallon ineptly allowed Donald Trump to create a viral moment on his show, Colbert was catering to the millions who despised Trump. Just last week the mere mention of the former president’s name triggered a spontaneous boo-fest inside the Ed Sullivan Theater. In the end it was Fallon, like Dave, who suffered the indignity, arguably the greater indignity, of having built a comfortable lead in the ratings only to squander it.
Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert both wound up jettisoning the style of comedy writing that had gotten them to the summit. In so doing they found a way back to the summit. In Colbert’s case the achievement is even more impressive because he took CBS back to No. 1, where it hadn’t been since Jay overtook Dave. For this Colbert deserves his nightly standing ovation. But standing O’s are cheap. I’d rather give him my attention and my affection. But that ship, I’m afraid, may have sailed for good.
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert airs weeknights at 11:35 PM ET on CBS
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.