This week, late night television lost two of its three best hosts, with only Jon Stewart remaining as one worth watching regularly. The Colbert Report, Stewart’s Daily Show spin-off, and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson both aired their series finales recently after nine and ten years, respectively. Given what they both bring to the overall landscape, this is a double-punch blow that will leave fans of originality on the small screen reeling.
First, let’s look at Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. Perhaps the first character that has done a show like this, completely in character, Colbert took his correspondent persona from The Daily Show, and developed it into a full-fledged parody of Bill O’Reilly. That seems a good joke, but a four-times-weekly half hour series? It takes a very rare talent to pull something like that off and keep it fresh night after night.
Colbert did so much more than that. He skewered politicians with his brilliant satire, which led to politician from both parties boycotting him for an extended period of time, until they realized his lampooning could actually help them get the youth vote.
He ripped apart then-President George W. Bush to his face when the GOP failed to get his schtick and unwittingly gave him a forum to do so. Colbert’s endorsement became a valuable commodity, any product or charity he promoted sure to see huge contribution from his rabid fan base.
He created a Super PAC to expose a broken system. He ran for president as a joke, and polled higher than many of the real candidates. (Equally noteworthy, he knew to get out before it went too far.) He held a rally that drew hundreds of thousands of his followers (including myself, who never does things like that) to Washington D.C. He re-defined late night wars in his “feud” with Jimmy Fallon, got involved in the Olympics, made into the Smithsonian, and supported our troops time and again. That’s a lot for a short time, and I’m just scratching the surface.
Why did Colbert have such an impact? It’s hard to define his appeal, but he has a cool factor, an intelligence, and a harmless quality that captured the spirit of those frustrated with the power structure. He was our voice to fight back, orating in a way that said what we thought in a manner that we couldn’t. He was thoroughly funny, and completely committed to the bit. But we fans were in on the secret, even when those in power were not for quite awhile, and it felt great to be a part of that club. It also didn’t hurt that he premiered after the widespread adoption of the DVR, meaning I was able to watch every single episode he did without fail, never missing a minute.
His final episode, which aired this past Thursday, was the perfect capper. Beginning with a “typical show,” he spiraled into a bizarre cheating of death, ending with him forever circling the globe in Santa’s sleigh, accompanied by Abraham Lincoln (who is a unicorn) and Alex Trebek, meaning he gets to live on forever, always with us. He also included a tear-worthy sing-a-long with so many guest stars, actors, politicians, athletes, musicians, scientists, historians, and more, that it’s impossible to name them all without copious amounts of freeze-framing, the sheer number of famous faces taking part proving Colbert’s worth. Best of all, he finally tossed back to Jon Stewart, making the whole series one long segment for The Daily Show, giving due to Colbert’s creator and demonstrating Colbert’s humility and gratefulness. If there were only a way to thank him in return.
Colbert ends his run far too early because is being given Late Show, taking over for the retiring David Letterman. I’m just speculating on his reasons for doing so, having no personal insider knowledge of the situation, but it seems to me that comedians of Colbert’s age see that job as a career pinnacle. They grew up looking to Johnny Carson, and aspire to get either The Tonight Show or Late Show.
Yet, in the current, fractured age, those stalwarts aren’t what they were. I’ve outlined the impact Colbert has made. I can’t believe he’ll get to do half of that on CBS. Though, it has to be tempting for Colbert to finally get to be himself, having retired the character on the show that made him famous. I mourn deeply for the loss, and hope for his seemingly inevitable return in some, likely limited, fashion.
One reason I have a small hope that Colbert won’t turn into a cookie-cutter host, which seems the obvious thing to do, is that CBS has shown itself willing to take chances at night, surprising given its boring, safe prime time lineup. Letterman has long been followed by The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, and as Craig constantly tells us, he’s not like any other show on television. With a “band” too shy to show itself, a gay robot skeleton sidekick, and two guys in a horse suit that dance, Ferguson has longed thumbed his nose at the genre and made the series his own. He ignored the pre-prepared interview, preferring just to talk to people, and routinely improv-ed large segments of his hour. He didn’t follow any norm.
While I enjoyed Ferguson on The Drew Carey Show many years ago, I first discovered his brilliance during the Writer’s Strike of 2008. Curious to see how the various late night personalities would handle things on their own, I sampled them all and found Ferguson to be, by far, the funniest of the broadcast network guys. That has to come because he does so much of his stuff on his own anyway. But it made me a fan, and while I did not watch every minute of every episode of The Late Late Show, as I did The Colbert Report, I checked in periodically and was never disappointed. Craig is leaving to pursue other projects, tired of staying in a single format.
Craig delivered a semi-tame finale. After a huge opening number with almost as many celebrities as Colbert’s, though Ferguson’s were almost all Hollywood-types (with The Newsroom‘s Jeff Daniels being the only participant on both shows that I spied), he settled into a very routine formula. He had Jay Leno as his final guest, someone I personally have little respect for, but who seemed appropriate given his own recent departure from the genre, and who was very enjoyable in this instance.
Where Craig departed the most from his formula was at the end. After revealing Bob Newhart as the head of the horse on the show, Craig woke up in bed next to Drew, reprising their roles from the earlier sitcom while paying tribute to the series finales of The Newhart Show, St. Elsewhere, and The Sopranos. It was zany, unexpected, and rewarded long-time fans. It was perfect for him.
It’s also worth noting that Craig brought the voice behind Geoff the robot up on stage in the penultimate hour, a treat that felt very, very right.
Ferguson is being replaced by a British comedian and actor named James Corden, who also doesn’t seem likely to be “normal.” With a Colbert / Corden team up, will CBS finally do what only Comedy Central has been doing for years and deliver a late night lineup worth watching on a daily basis? Only time will tell, but for now, I mourn the loss of the two heavyweights, both quite different, but both bucking what amounts to “typical” fare in their field. Without them, the evening will get a lot more dull.
Colbert’s replacement, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, premieres January 19th. The Late Late Show will have a series of guest hosts for the next couple of months before Corden takes over in March. Letterman retires in May and Colbert will be back on TV in August. Ferguson is expected to next do a 7 p.m. half hour syndicated comedy talk show, with robot and horse in tow, in 2016.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B004NLO2CY][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0446583979]