For years in the 1990s, Comedy Central was considered nothing more than an incubator for late-night talent. Its first notable weeknight late-night show, Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher, originated there and ran for three years — from 1993-96 — before ABC snatched it to get into the late-night talk-show game. Maher’s successor at ABC, Jimmy Kimmel, also is a Comedy Central discovery, having gotten his start as host on the network’s Win Ben Stein Money and then The Man Show. Before Politically Incorrect left Comedy Central, it helped launch The Daily Show, which premiered behind PI at 11:30 PM before moving to the tentpole 11 PM slot. Back then, the Daily Show had Craig Kilborn as a host. In 1998, he was poached by CBS as a host of the Late Late Show. Sixteen years later, CBS once again is reaching out to Comedy Central’s Daily Show franchise to replenish its late-night ranks, this time drafting the former Daily Show regular and current host of spinoff The Colbert Report to succeed David Letterman on the Late Show.
A lot has changed over those 16 years. Since Jon Stewart replaced Kilborn at the helm of The Daily Show in January 1999, the show has risen to become a late-night leader. It became a top late-night choice for younger viewers and, with the addition of spinoff The Colbert Report in 2005 to form a 11 PM-midnight block, Comedy Central evolved from a late-night poaching ground to a force to be reckoned with. The two shows became pop culture phenomenons and strengthened their hold on the younger crowds by embracing the Internet and social media before most of their late-night competitors. They have enjoyed buzz as well as critical acclaim, with their Emmy dominance nothing short of staggering. The Daily Show won the best variety series category for a record 10 consecutive times before its streak was ended last year by The Colbert Report to give Comedy Central 11 consecutive victories. (It’s worth mentioning that it was the man Colbert is replacing, David Letterman, who ruled the top variety category before Comedy Central’s dynamic duo kicked off their dominant run with five consecutive trophies.) In the variety series writing category, The Daily Show and Colbert Report have won 10 of the past 11 years.
What’s more, Comedy Central now boasts the only late-night lineup of three hit shows with the addition of @midnight last fall. The social media-themed show has been a rising star, constantly growing in the ratings. It hit another set of series highs just last week, it only trails The Daily Show and The Tonight Show in young men and has the youngest median age in all of late-night, by far, at 32 years old. That gives Comedy Central a hot show ready to move into the 11:30 PM slot after Colbert leaves at the end of the year with only a title change needed. (The network is not committing to a succession plan just yet and plans to explore various ideas in the next eight months, with @midnight said to be in the mix.) Comedy Central’s deep late-night bench was probably a reason for the network to lose Daily Show veteran John Oliver who, after a well received turn as a fill-in for Stewart on The Daily Show last summer, was ready for his own talker and, with space at Comedy Central crowded, landed at HBO where he will share the late-night perch with another Comedy Central transplant, Maher. Outside of NBC, which has its own late-night breeding ground in Saturday Night Live, all major late-night franchises on CBS, ABC and HBO can be traced back to Comedy Central.
What has set Comedy Central’s late-night apart and maybe helped its success is that it didn’t go for clones of the traditional late-night talk shows. The Daily Show is a faux news telecast and political satire. The Colbert Report took that a step further, with Colbert playing a character. The show being essentially a performance art piece probably contributed to its shorter lifespan than The Daily Show, for instance. Comedy series, even the best ones, rarely last more than a decade, with actors tiring from playing the same characters for so long. Still, Colbert may not have ended his run as Colbert Nation leader after nine years if it was not for an opportunity he had dreamed about for decades, replacing idol Letterman. @midnight too is far from a traditional late-night show, with insiders speculating that Comedy Central will likely go for another out-of-the-box format as a late-night addition.
As deep as Comedy Central bench is, it is imperative for the network to try and keep Stewart beyond his current contract, which ends in September 2015. He has more ownership than Colbert through his company, which also produces Colbert Report, and is unlikely to pursue another late-night gig. But he has other interests, including movies, coming off directing his first feature. Unlike Colbert Report, which is tied to the Colbert persona, The Daily Show is a franchise show like The Tonight Show and Late Show and will likely continue after Stewart leaves. Comedy Central brass probably hope they don’t have to cross that bridge so soon.