James Corden is having an extended moment. As the host of The Late Late Show, following Stephen Colbert in his first year at The Late Show, Corden has drawn plenty of internet buzz for his immensely popular carpool karaoke (yes, that link features a video of Adele and Corden driving around singing and has 108 million views). Earlier this week Corden was even pretty close to getting people to care about the Tony awards. He is young, he is energetic, he is highly likeable. And he is now a reluctant component of another case of late-night talk show drama.
Recently there have been rumors flying that we could see Stephen Colbert lose his job as the host of The Late Show, and with Corden, legitimately, crushing it right now he’s the first name out of the mouth of anyone talking about a successor. Former Late Show host David Letterman has not calmed rumors by suggesting that CBS should have picked someone else as his successor . For his part, Corden has done the right thing and denied interest in the Late Show job. But once these rumors start, and a show’s rating start to slip (as Colbert’s have), they have a tendency to hang around and gain more traction than they might deserve.
So with all respect to Corden and any other potential replacement, Stephen Colbert is one of the best performers in the business today and he will find his footing.
Consider this for a moment: Stephen Colbert played a fictitiously uber-conservative character named after himself for 10 years, or 1,447 episodes of The Colbert Report. 1,447 episodes! That is nearly triple the number of episodes the cast of The Simpsons have made! A select number of actors have appeared in as many episodes of a show, but they are most often being themselves, typically in a hosting role (think Leno), or are on a soap opera. And Colbert was always on, never breaking character, even for interviews that were not on his show. No one else in the history of show business, that we are aware of, has pulled off a bizarre stunt like that for as long as Colbert did. As a result, should we be surprised that the real Stephen Colbert is having a little difficulty finding his voice post-Colbert Report? Colbert is known for being political, and on Comedy Central he had an adoring crowd of young liberals pre-loaded for him in his slot after The Daily Show. With his broader audience on CBS Colbert needs to find his tone. The brand of humor he doled out on The Colbert Report is not likely to gain many fans in a more mainstream audience. But Colbert is too smart and too talented to not be able to find a voice for the CBS audience.
Colbert suffers a bit from never having a late-night understudy period. Jimmy Fallon got to cut his teeth behind Leno (and Conan…) on Late Night for almost 5 years (in short order he was making a show that was superior to Leno’s in every facet, from music to jokes to interviews). It was not always smooth for Fallon, but he worked out the kinks in an environment where relatively few people were watching and criticizing. The same is true for Conan O’Brien but with some more soap opera twists and turns before landing in his current spot. In the “late” versions of the network nightly talk shows, there is considerably less pressure and more room to try zanier things than on the flagship program. Corden is certainly benefitting from that right now as well. Colbert jumped right into the head chair at The Late Show and is being forced to learn on the job.
In many ways, the most apt comparison for Colbert is Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel also came from a completely different style of show (remember The Man Show?) in the cable world. Kimmel’s early years at Jimmy Kimmel Live! were not great either. But over time he and his show found an identity, gained some popular recurring segments, and Kimmel became a competent and serious host. In some ways, he’s the most serious of the three major late night hosts for his earnest take on weighty topic like vaccinations and climate change.
The reason for hope that a Colbert-led Late Show will be successful is the man himself. Stephen Colbert is one of the best improvisers performing today. His interviews on The Colbert Report were consistent-proof of this fact. Colbert is known for being a political-based comedian, which is not entirely fair because unlike a Bill Maher-type, Colbert could be just as funny talking about something like yogurt as he is talking about Congress. The politics angle may be the most difficult for Colbert to incorporate into his new show. He may have been best served by allowing other aspects of the show to develop first and letting the politics come along later. Unfortunately, it’s a big election year so that was never likely to be an option. He will have to forge ahead and work out the kinks in his show with everyone watching.
CBS has two problems right now, but both are good problems to have: First, they need to figure out how to keep a rising star like James Corden on their network. Cable, other networks, heck maybe even HBO will be calling. Second, they need to buy their other immensely talented host, Colbert, enough time to get his show up to its full potential. That means putting to bed rumors of him being replaced ASAP.