With five new hosts being introduced across popular network and cable shows over the past two years, there's arguably never been a better time to watch late-night TV.
The departure of names once synonymous with the after-10 p.m. lineup — especially Jay Leno and David Letterman — has brought in new hosts with a new sensibility that is transforming late-night.
In hosts like Jimmy Fallon, James Corden and Jimmy Kimmel, late night has enjoyed an injection of lighthearted fun for both TV viewers and a generation that turns to YouTube for entertainment. Twitter jokes and car karaoke have replaced the cynical comedy and toothless celebrity interviews that have defined late-night shows for decades.
Perhaps no one better illustrates the wholesale change in late night than Stephen Colbert, who shuttered his wildly popular Comedy Central show, “The Colbert Report,” to take David Letterman’s seat on CBS’s “The Late Show” this fall. Fans of the "Report" know Colbert for the absurdly conservative pundit he portrayed weekly on the program — a persona Colbert says he plans to leave behind for his new show.
“The actual presented character on TV was mostly his (the character’s) intention of monetizing anger and fear,” Colbert said in a Time magazine interview. “I suspect people are tired of hearing that monetized divisiveness. The business model of anger I think people are tired of.”
Colbert's decision to follow a different direction will compliment the reinvention of late night that's currently playing itself out across the three major networks and some cable channels.
"We’re in a full-sail reorganization and rethinking of what late-night TV is," said University of Georgia professor and Peabody Awards-winning director Jeffrey P. Jones. "(Kimmel and Fallon) are engaging in a rethinking of late night that began when Jon Stewart and Colbert upset apple cart by proving (late-night TV) could be smart, funny and even disturbing, not just a celebrity pitch project."
A new kind of comedy
With the new show hosts comes a new definition of what late-night comedy can be. Gone is the barbarous sarcasm that defined the early years of Letterman’s “Late Show” shtick and the ho-hum celebrity parade of Jay Leno.
Jimmy Fallon has proven himself with comedic ideas that define his show on the air and online. His celebrity mean tweets and lip sync battle segments translate well onto YouTube and from there to social media — often going viral.
Multi-platform comedy that has a universal appeal has become the new late night, says author and former New York Times TV critic Bill Carter.
“Fallon’s lip sync battle (segment) became a separate show, practically,” Carter said. “They don’t want people who just write jokes anymore, they want people who can come up with comic ideas and concepts.”
For those who can do this, Carter says, the results can be career-defining — as it was for Letterman.
“Letterman started all that with his man-on-the-street interviews,” Carter said. “He was so inventive with that.”
Colbert, too, can only thrive in this arena, Jones said. Many of the segments on his Comedy Central show went viral on YouTube, and the show became a go-to for intellectuals and authors that had been squeezed out of late-night spots in favor of celebrities. Earlier this month, Colbert promised to keep an eclectic mix of guests as a priority when he released a list of his first guests, including actor George Clooney, GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, as well as Silicon Valley thinkers like uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Right now, Jones said, that could be the missing piece from network late night.
"Colbert is truly masterful at conducting interviews that elicit meaning, kind of like (Johnny) Carson did, but in a more cerebral way," Jones said. "Whereas Fallon engages more in a performance than a dialogue."
A new audience
Along with fresh ideas, the new late-night shows are netting a different and much wider audience, mostly because whether the preference is scathing political satire or silly celebrity karaoke, there has never been more variety in late-night shows, Carter says — and that's good for both late night and its audience.
"You have a lot of choices now, whereas Carson was very alone," Carter said. "Now, people can enjoy multiple shows any time they want. The hosts can play to their strengths, too — Kimmel does stuff that's kind of pointed and people like him. Fallon does a more variety show style because that's what he's good at."
But the variety also allows for the audience to tailor their late-night TV rituals — a new and useful wrinkle, University of Wisconsin Madison media and cultural studies professor Jonathan Gray said.
“‘The Daily Show’ was one of the best things TV has ever produced, but it made me mad at the end of the day, and that’s not what I wanted,” Gray said. “The network hosts like Fallon, they get the time slot a lot more. They can be topical without making me annoyed at the planet right before bed."
Jones predicts Colbert will balance the buoyancy of Fallon with the edgier style of hosts like Letterman or Kimmel.
"Even though he's played this character, his spirit has always been infectious — you can't not like the guy, in my opinion," Jones said. "I don't think he's going to miss a beat."
Minus the biting political satire that's so far defined his career, Colbert still stands to gain the empty throne of network late night with a fan base and comedic chops that dwarf his competitors, plus the knowledge that a great late-night show is more than the sum of its parts.
"Late-night shows are (Food Network competition) 'Chopped.' Who are your guests tonight? Your guests tonight are veal tongue, coffee grounds and gummy bears. Make an appetizer that appeals to millions of people," Colbert said in GQ. "How could you possibly do it? Oh, you bring in your own flavors.”