Years from now, serious scholars of TV will study 2015 as The Year That Blew Up Late Night TV.
The sinister change began to intrude itself, like some creeping fog, in December of 2014, when Stephen Colbert pulled the plug on his Comedy Central show, because he’d been lured away by CBS to take over The Late Show from retiring David Letterman:
Letterman’s retirement announcement also set in motion the end of Craig Ferguson’s reign as host of CBS’s The Late Late Show, which had its final broadcast the night after The Colbert Report’s so long…
…setting up James Corden’s take-over of that CBS franchise in March:
Letterman finally got around to stepping down in May, making good on the retirement announcement he’d made way back in April of 2014:
Letterman went out as the longest-serving late-night host in TV history, surpassing his friend and mentor Johnny Carson at the 31-year mark (Letterman made his late-night debut as host of NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman in 1982, moving to CBS to host Late Show in ’93). Maybe more important, his April ’14 news had come almost two months after late-night nemesis Jay Leno departed NBC’s The Tonight Show after a 22-year run.
The night of his so-long tributes from late-night competitors poured in, but none more eloquent than Conan O’Brien, who told his audience when to switch over to watch Letterman’s swansong, reminding them how, when he took over Letterman’s NBC show and became “a national punchline,” Letterman had “rescued” him with an on-air visit.
Months earlier, back in February of ’15, Conan made TV history when he and a small crew “snuck” into Havana, Cuba to film for his TBS late-night show’s March 4 episode, becoming the first American late-night show to film in Cuba since the U.S. embargo began in 1962, and definitely raising the bar for late-night TV road trips. In so doing, Conan was returning late night TV to former glory; Jack Paar famously interviewed Fidel Castro for NBC’s Tonight Show way back in 1959, for which Paar took some heat. But Castro was a very big “get” that year, for obvious reasons, and the Paar interview was news. Two months before Conan’s Cuba trip, President Obama made news when he announced he would normalize relations with Cuba.
Studies show more and more young viewers get their news and info from late-night TV than print or cable news networks. In that vein, Conan filled in for his network’s cable cousin, CNN in Cuba:
About the time Conan went to Cuba, Comedy Central really felt the December exit of Colbert, when Jon Stewart announced he would step down as host of The Daily Show.
In as perfect an instance of one damn thing after another as the TV industry had seen in some years, just days after Stewart’s news, HBO had announced Stewart’s other most-obvious replacement host, John Oliver had renewed his contract on his much-ballyhooed late-night show on the premium cable network, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, for two additional seasons of 35 episodes each. HBO’s headline killed the dream of many that Oliver would return to Comedy Central to take over for Stewart on The Daily Show.
Oliver, you’ll recall, had been the guy who told PBS’s Charlie Rose he did not think the great notices, or numbers, he got keeping warm the Daily Show anchor chair in summer of ’13, while the clearly restless Stewart went off to his feature directorial debut with Rosewater, was “going to change my life,” but it did just that when HBO poached him. He launched Last Week Tonight in April of ’14. Now, one year later, with Stewart stepping down to focus on animal rescue, health care for first responders, and other issues close to his heart, and Colbert having shed his Colbert Report on-air persona to go breathe the stodgier air of broadcast TV, Oliver has taken over as the undisputed king of late-night call-to-action comedy/advocacy. In 2015, Oliver was credited with jump-starting legislation to protect chicken farmers, and pushing FIFA sponsors to cut bait on chief Sepp Blatter. And, Oliver made headlines when he got himself declared a geographically challenged “oxymoron” with “little nuts” by no less than the president of Ecuador after Oliver sent his viewers to Twitter to mock President Rafael Correa for using his weekly TV address to attack citizens he felt had insulted him on social media and in the press.
Oliver’s call-to-action late-night style most closely mirrored that of Colbert at Comedy Central, who waged war on Amazon, briefly ran for POTUS in 2007, and launched his own super-PAC. A report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center warned just how much this country lost when Colbert shuttered his Comedy Central show. According to the Annenberg report, Colbert Report viewers were better informed about campaign financing and the role of money in politics than viewers of actual news channels and other, actual-news shows. It was the first study showing that Colbert had done a better job than other news sources at teaching people about campaign financing.
More recently, an academic look at Colbert’s influence revealed his new CBS show is not loved by Republicans, which no doubt came as a big shock to CBS execs, what with Colbert’s Comedy Central show having been such a fave among conservatives – so much so that arch-conservative Rush Limbaugh had congratulated CBS on the hire:
Meanwhile, Comedy Central, had replaced Colbert with Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show:
This month, Wilmore won the What Late Night Comic Will Get To Entertain POTUS At White House Correspondents Dinner sweepstake. Because, maybe, this:
The announcement was notable because it’s going to be the first time the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, held annually in April, will hail from Comedy Central since the infamous year Colbert torched the hall when he was the “entertainer.” The White House Critics Association dipped its little toe into the Comedy Central water last year, when then-Comedy Central star Keegan-Michael Key made a guest appearance as Obama’s “anger translator.”
In September, Comedy Central announced it had picked up Wilmore’s show through the end of 2016. The pick-up wasn’t much of a surprise, given that Comedy Central had its hands full introducing Trevor Noah as Jon Stewart’s replacement on Wilmore’s lead-in show.
In mid March, Comedy Central announced relative unknown South African comic Noah, who had appeared just a few times on The Daily Show as International Correspondent, would take over as the show’s host in September. One day later, the network said it was standing by that decision, after the media did some google searching to find out just who was this new guy was and dug up pretty incendiary tweets, including such gems as, “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!” Noah dismissed the incendiary tweets as jokes that did not “land.” The network insisted, “Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included,” but also said it was “unfair” of the media to “judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes.”
GOP presidential hopeful Chris Christie held Noah’s hand during his first night’s interview as host of the show Stewart had built up into a major player in the country’s political conversation:
(Speaking of politics, NBC’s Saturday Night Live became radioactive for a few weeks in fall of ‘15, when it announced Donald Trump would become its first ever White House hopeful guest host, not long after NBC announced it was getting out of bed with Trump because of his remarks about rapists and murderers and “some good people” coming to the United States from Mexico. The battle to force SNL to dump Trump went all the way to the floor of the House in Washington. NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which maintained its commanding lead in late-night ratings as the daypart exploded around it this year, got no such pushback when Trump was his guest. But, then, neither did ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, or Colbert on CBS.)
When serious scholars of TV look back at 2015 in year to come, the biggest late-night headline will be Stewart wrapping his 16-year run run on The Daily Show, in August.
Closely following, Colbert debut as successor to David Letterman the following month, with Stewart’s help:
Though Colbert had announced he would shed his conservative bloviator character in making the move to CBS, and CBS is delighted with the tsunami of attention Colbert has brought to its late night, and his younger skew – not to mention its ownership of the content, unlike Letterman’s show – die-hard Colbert may nonetheless be disappointed in his play for broadcast. That said, there have been some notable glimpses of the “old” Colbert on his CBS program. A recent show devoted entirely to the people of Paris, for instance, freed Colbert from broadcast talk-show TV’s stifling format. On November 17, Colbert honored the city in which ISIS-inspired attacks had left 130 dead, by tormenting HBO late-night star Bill Maher and cavorting with Acro-Cats.
In marked difference with other late-night TV hosts, who’d made heartfelt, or profane, comments about the attacks at the top of their shows and then moved on, Colbert turned over his entire show to the City of Light, bathing the Ed Sullivan Theater in blue, white and red light as John Batiste and his Stay Human in-house band opened with a performance of the French national anthem. Maher came out to talk about his favorite topic: Islam. Before long, the two men were debating Catholicism, with Colbert, who is married and Catholic, noting Maher had been raised Catholic and invited him to “come on back.” Maher, an athiest, said something about Colbert getting his moral guidance from a book written by people who had not known where the sun went at night. Maher also tried to play the hipster my-show’s-on-HBO-and-I-get-to-use-profanity card, only to have Colbert whip around on him and give the CBS Decency Police quite a workout. Pretty soon, Colbert was calling Maher “doll,” and Maher called Colbert “sweetheart” – and “Steve.” “Who the f*ck is ‘Steve’ – are you my third-grade teacher?” Colbert giggled, adding, “They turned off the camera five minutes ago,” and, “I don’t know what we’re going to do with this interview, but I really enjoyed it.” Maher looked pretty irked, like a guy who had expected to be treated like a philosopher king, but instead been cast as toy bounce-back clown.