I'm bemused by the reaction to Stephen Colbert being signed to replace David Letterman on The Late Show. Most especially the reaction by Rush Limbaugh and some of the far right.
That anyone is seriously that much concerned about who hosts a late night talk show -- especially someone "concerned" like Rush Limbaugh -- is something I don't remotely believe. Late night talk shows simply don't get big ratings. Right now, The Late Show gets a little over 3 million viewers. By comparison, the top-rated show, The Big Bang Theory, last week had 17.7 million viewers. If any late night talk show show had been on in primetime, it would have been cancelled by the third commercial break.
Late night talk shows are a valuable part of our culture. But most people simply don't watch them. I don't imagine Rush Limbaugh ever much watched Letterman's show, and he wasn't likely to watch whoever replaced him. Or Fallon or Kimmel or Conan or Ferguson or Meyers or whoever. Even if George Will and Ann Coulter hosted it together and did a nightly soft shoe. That doesn't mean one who doesn't watch shouldn't comment on them, just that it's good to at least keep a wee bit of perspective. For example, I don't recall seeing anyone -- not just Mr. Limbaugh -- make a peep EVER about the propriety of ANY performer hired to star in any primetime show. Shows that have five times the viewership. For goodness sake, that outspoken liberal Robert Redford has his own network, and there isn't a peep.
Yes, talk shows are different. Mind you, the main difference to any TV executive is how few people watch them in comparison to primetime. But the fact that they're "talk shows" with discussion is hardly that-much worth such analysis. After all, if people like the shows, they'll watch and the shows will succeed. If the shows aren't interesting -- Stephen Colbert's included -- then they'll be cancelled. The TV landscape is littered with more failed TV shows than Iowa has cornfields. Further, it's especially hilarious to see Rush Limbaugh's supposed "outraged" reaction about Stephen Colbert getting a late night talk show when you step back a moment and realize that, well,,,Stephen Colbert already has a freaking late night talk show!!! In fact, he's had it for almost nine freaking years. And the "well, it's just on cable" argument doesn't hold. A) So is Fox News, and B) it draws about a million viewers. Yes, that's less than the Late Night slot on CBS, but -- c'mon, honestly folks, it's not that much less. We're not talking 15 million fewer people like compared to The Big Bang Theory; no, for all the attention and "outrage" we're talking a difference of two million people. Again, to be clear, this is not about taking some on-the-edge radical performer and suddenly vaulting him to a national platform. Stephen Colbert already has a major platform. He's probably one of the most visible comedians and talk show hosts in America. He's just moving the location of his desk.
I happen to love Stephen Colbert -- more him personally and as a performer than The Character and The Colbert Report. I like the show, but don't watch it much. I prefer The Daily Show. But Colbert himself? He's great. Not just as The Character, but I've seen him on Law & Order (pre-fame) as the killer, he's been on Broadway in a musical, he's very versatile and talented, and...he's very smart. I'm not just biased because he went to the beloved Northwestern. I once heard him as a guest for a full hour with Al Franken (when Franken had his Air America radio show), and he was just being himself. And the two of them were brilliant together -- a Harvard guy and a Northwestern guy -- really smart, really thoughtful, occasionally funny but not mostly, but always entertaining and fascinating. It could have go on for another hour. Not everyone would have agreed with them, but it was thoughtful, considerate analysis. It was analysis that was insightful, not inciting.
He's terrific. The challenge will be for audiences to accept him as him, not as the character "Stephen Colbert." He'll be himself, I'm sure, he'll have to be -- and I'm sure that's a large reason why he's making the shift. (I've heard him say that if he knew how The Character would take over, he would never have named him "Stephen Colbert.") Assuming the new show stays smart, clever, satiric at time, inventive, thoughtful and...well, fun, it should be very successful. That's a tall order for any show, but Colbert has show for nine years he can do all that. And it helps that, by all accounts, he's an extremely nice fellow. The sort who people actually like to "invite into their homes" on TV.
That, most of all, bodes well.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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