Nearly eight months after he took over for a retiring David Letterman, Stephen Colbert is still figuring out his place in the ever-shifting late-night firmament.
Although "The Late Show" is narrowly ahead of ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" in the ratings this season, it trails NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" by about 900,000 viewers each night, and its online audience is much smaller than that of either its immediate rivals. Even a historic berth after the Super Bowl in February — the first time a late-night show has aired in this slot — failed to produce a long-term ratings boost for "The Late Show."
That's certainly alarming for CBS, but there's an important caveat: Late-night shows usually take time to find their groove. A case in point is Fallon, who's now late night's undisputed ratings champ and has succeeded in making "The Tonight Show" fresh and exciting to a new generation of viewers, an outcome few would have predicted after his widely panned debut on NBC's "Late Night" in 2009.
Still, there is bound to be disappointment at CBS, especially since Colbert, who in 17 years on "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" became one of the country's preeminent political satirists, isn't dominating this year's unpredictable, Trump-driven election-year conversation the way many assumed he would. Not only does he face a number of new competitors in the realm of political humor, but without the buffer provided by his blowhard character, Colbert has sometimes seemed muted and uncertain of his voice.
In mid-April, CBS announced that Chris Licht, the executive producer who'd helped turn "CBS This Morning" into a success, would be stepping into a new role as show runner and executive producer of "The Late Show." Some interpreted the move, reportedly suggested by CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves, as a sign of growing pains at the still-young show.
"The real dilemma is they need to find out who is Stephen Colbert," said Jon Macks, a longtime writer for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." "To use a political analogy, a candidate cannot win if you don't know he or she is."
Until Licht joined the show on April 18, Colbert was essentially operating as his own show runner, an almost impossible feat given the grinding pace of broadcast late night. By all accounts, the comedian is unusually detail-oriented and hands-on; for a while, he was even functioning as "The Late Show's" announcer. (Neither Colbert nor Licht would comment for this story.)
Colbert brought most of his senior writing and producing team with him from Comedy Central, where they'd put on a half-hour show four times a week. At CBS, they're responsible for more than twice that, five hour-long episodes a week.
As Robert Morton, who served as an executive producer to Letterman at both NBC and CBS, noted, the learning curve for any new late-night show is steep. "'He's been on the air less than a year, and these are shows that take many, many years to develop."
But there have been signs since Day One that things were not running smoothly. Colbert's jam-packed "Late Show" debut almost didn't make it to air because the taping ran so long. More recently, a prop for a segment called "Wheel of News" wasn't working, so Colbert resorted to using an assistant's arm for a lever.
"If you could free up the people that made 'The Colbert Report' a hit — obviously they're brilliant — from the minutiae, it's a great move," Morton said of Licht's hiring.
Although Licht, who was previously executive producer of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," doesn't have experience in comedy, he understands the culture at CBS, where he is well regarded. He has been instrumental in turning the once-struggling "CBS This Morning" into a contender by establishing it as the smarter alternative to "Today" and "Good Morning America."
A similar balance of soft and substantive, of mainstream yet upmarket, may be just the thing Colbert's brainy "Late Show" needs. The host has aggressively bucked tradition with his guest bookings, mixing the usual assortment of Hollywood stars with authors, tech CEOs, and other newsmakers rarely seen on entertainment programs.
According to the website FiveThirtyEight, over the course of Colbert's first 100 episodes, his guest list skewed heavy to political figures, writers and business leaders, while his rivals welcomed more than twice as many athletes as Colbert. In the high school cafeteria of late night, "The Late Show" is the table with the Model UN kids; "The Tonight Show" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" are the jocks.
Colbert tends to shine in interviews, particularly with more substantive guests. This is an offshoot of his background in improv comedy, a discipline that is "all about vibing off of other people," notes Sophia McClennen, a professor at Penn State University and author of the book "America According to Colbert: Satire as Public Pedagogy."
Highlights have included Colbert's moving interview with Vice President Joe Biden, who opened up about the death of his son Beau, his Catholic faith and his ambivalence about a potential run for president, and his conversation about white privilege with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson.
Alas, such thoughtful discussions rarely ignite social media the way a lip-syncing Emma Stone might on "The Tonight Show." Colbert lags behind his competitors in this department. "The Late Show" recently notched its millionth subscriber on YouTube, where the most-watched clip, featuring an "all-Trump" GOP debate, has amassed about 7 million views.
Not too shabby, especially compared to Letterman, a late-night Luddite. But when it comes to digital reach, Colbert significantly trails both his competitors. Kimmel was arguably the first late-night host to figure out the importance of viral videos with "I'm ... Matt Damon" back in 2008. Fallon's celebrity parlor games and musical mash-ups are reliable blockbusters online.
Colbert has even been eclipsed by his 12:30 lead-out, James Corden. The English comedian was largely unknown in the U.S. before taking over "The Late Late Show" but has proven to be a viral dynamo whose infectious "Carpool Karaoke" segments regularly rack up tens of millions of views. (His session with Adele stands at 98 million and counting.)
"He has to think in terms of the digital play," said Morton. "You don't want to look like you're pandering, but there's a sophisticated way to do it."
When Colbert was announced as the new host of "The Late Show" two years ago, he and Jon Stewart were the two most dominant voices in American political humor. With Stewart signing off from "The Daily Show" just weeks before Colbert's CBS debut, conventional wisdom held that Colbert would have an edge going into an election year, but the late-night landscape has shifted dramatically.
When it comes to topical comedy, Colbert now faces competition from "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah" and "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore," both at his former home, Comedy Central. There's also former "Daily Show" correspondent Samantha Bee, who's brought a fresh, distinctively feminist perspective to late night with "Full Frontal" on TBS. Even Seth Meyers, of NBC's "Late Night," has positioned himself as broadcast's answer to Stewart with his "A Closer Look" segments.
But if anyone has truly stolen Colbert's thunder, it's John Oliver. In just a fraction of the airtime — his half-hour show airs on HBO just once a week — the former "Daily Show" correspondent has arguably influenced the political conversation more than any other late-night comic this election season. He has done so while largely eschewing the 24-7 news cycle in favor of in-depth reports on neglected issues as with a segment on Donald Trump that rebranded the GOP front-runner as "Donald Drumpf."
McClennen likens the "Donald Drumpf" segment to Colbert's invention of the word "truthiness" in the early days of "The Colbert Report." "Can somebody do a political bit that changes the public discourse? That's what Colbert did with 'truthiness'; it became part of the lexicon. That's what Oliver is doing now."
Still, several "Late Show" segments have stood out for their political acumen. In his first night on the air, Colbert impressed critics with a bit about the media obsession with Trump, in which likened covering the candidate to bingeing on Oreos. A more recent segment perfectly skewered Sarah Palin's linguistically tortured endorsement of Trump, while a popular recurring bit called "Hungry for Power Games" lampoons "fallen" presidential candidates in a way that's accessible to tweens.
But particularly given his liberal reputation, Colbert faces a tricky task in capitalizing on his perceived strength as a satirist without alienating more conservative viewers. Perhaps as a result, he has occasionally seemed unwilling to go for the jugular, as in a widely anticipated interview with Trump. Some fans were hoping that Colbert would, to borrow the parlance of the Internet, "eviscerate" the bombastic billionaire; instead the host was polite and deferential, even apologizing for the "unforgivable" things he'd said about the candidate.
In recent weeks, Colbert appears to have tweaked his political material to make it more broadly entertaining. On the eve of the New York primary, he showed Hillary Clinton the best way to eat a slice of cheesecake by gobbling it in a single bite. The following night Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan made his first late-night TV appearance on "The Late Show," where Colbert repeatedly — and with increasing absurdity — pressed him about a rumored presidential run.
The satire of "The Late Show" is "softer" than at "The Colbert Report," McClennen said, contrasting present-day Colbert with the persona he deployed to devastating effect at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, where he mercilessly roasted then-President George W. Bush, and in two mock campaigns for president that raised awareness of the country's lax campaign finance regulations.
"That guy isn't doing this show," McClennen said. "Right now we're not seeing a guy who's going to make history."