I came across this article today, a beautifully meandering meditation on one fan’s life after “Late Show with David Letterman,” which went off the air in May 2015. “He shouldn’t have been allowed to retire,” states Julie Hecht. “It was a job, like being President. His term wasn’t over.”
There was a time when Letterman was one of the most important figures in my life; I was young enough when I started watching his show that he had a massive influence on my sense of humor and cynical worldview. However, by the time his show disappeared from the airwaves, I had mostly stopped watching, with certain exceptions (I never missed his annual Halloween or Christmas episodes). I felt the show had gotten stale; the manic inventiveness of the early years had given way to dull monologues and stale top-10 lists. He seemed to be phoning it in a lot of the time. The exceptions were glorious—his ongoing fascination with bizarro South African group Die Antwoord after their appearance on “Late Show” was priceless, and his banter with bandleader Paul Shaffer was often the highlight of the hour—but unlike Hecht, I was OK with Letterman riding off into the sunset to grow a crazy beard and spend more time in Montana.
The late-night talk show upheaval that drove me to tears was Stephen Colbert’s departure from Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.” The final episode, which featured the likes of Henry Kissinger, Willie Nelson, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Gloria Steinem singing along to “We’ll Meet Again,” gutted me, because I loved “The Colbert Report.” The only consolation was that Stephen had obviously chosen that song on purpose, because less than a year after the “Report” went off the air, he would reemerge as Letterman’s successor on “Late Show.”
But while Hecht has to deal with Letterman’s complete disappearance from her TV screen, it almost seems worse that I have had to confront Stephen Colbert’s presence on what is unmistakably a mediocre, unfunny show. For months, I dutifully TiVo’d “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” despite the fact that I came to loathe it. The comedy segments were half-baked; the nadir, perhaps, came around Valentine’s Day, when he did a bit called “Late Show First Drafts: Valentine’s Cards,” which was so staggeringly unfunny that even he seemed slightly embarrassed by it. Jay Leno, nemesis of Letterman fans everywhere, would have rejected it as being too hacky.
Colbert, who always seemed to relish interviewing political figures, authors and scientists on the “Report,” failed to make his conversations with Hollywood stars and CBS TV personalities the least bit interesting. His interactions with his bandleader, Jon Batiste, remain painfully awkward (somebody should really turn off his mic and let him stick to playing music). Terribly unfunny bits—”Midnight Confessions,” “Life Hacked”—showed up week after week. In a true slap in the face to Letterman fans, the only Colbert sketch to date featuring one of Dave’s neighborhood regulars, Hello Deli owner Rupert Jee, made the new host look like a mean-spirited heel. Who thought that would be a good idea?
And here’s the thing I really don’t get about the brilliance of “Report” vs. the mediocrity of “Late Show”—there were tons of recurring bits on “Report” that had nothing to do with Colbert’s faux right-wing pundit character. “Cheating Death with Dr. Stephen T. Colbert”? “Sports Report”? “Thought For Food”? “Colbert Platinum”? It’s hard to believe the same writers who came up with those witty segments are writing for “Late Show” (indeed, many of his writers moved with him from Comedy Central to CBS).
I stuck with “Late Show” for months before giving up on it. Meanwhile, in the old “Report” time slot, another show that I initially found disappointing, “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” has gradually become one of the brightest spots on late night TV. At first, most of “Nightly” was given over to a trainwreck of a panel segment, which gradually morphed into a brief, fast-paced round table featuring two “Nightly Show” contributors and one guest. They’ve beefed up their roster of smart, funny regulars with fresh voices like Franchesca Ramsey and Grace Parra. Not every bit works, but there are way more hits than misses. And like Jon Stewart, Wilmore has the gravitas to address serious issues of the day as capably as he handles lighter material. As a bonus, “Nightly” has the best recurring Trump segments in late night, thanks to impersonator Bob Dibuono.
“Nightly”‘s ratings aren’t great, and neither are Trevor Noah’s, who had the unenviable task of replacing Stewart on “The Daily Show.” I’m concerned that Comedy Central may decide to reboot the entire 11 PM hour after the 2016 elections. I hope Wilmore sticks around for a while, though. As Hecht’s article demonstrates, the late night TV shows you watch in order to unwind at the end of the day become part of the fabric of your life, and when your favorite goes away, it leaves a void.
I don’t blame Colbert for not wanting to play the part of a blowhard pundit for the rest of his life, but I do wonder what happened to the razor-sharp satire and brilliantly inventive ideas that were the hallmark of his “Report.” If CBS wanted him to dumb down his act in order to succeed on network TV, it didn’t seem to work, since “Late Show” frequently finishes in third place in the time slot after his network competitors, the two Jimmys (Kimmel and Fallon). I would love to see some of Colbert’s old brilliance reemerge, but after such a disappointing first year, I’m not counting on it.