Don’t look now, but Jimmy Fallon appears to have entered his Jay Leno phase a bit sooner than scheduled. With the arrival of Stephen Colbert on CBS’ “The Late Show,” “The Tonight Show” host has quickly become the popular kid, but not the cool one – the big box store of late-night comedy.
Fallon has another opportunity to show himself off in a favorable light Wednesday, with Hillary Clinton scheduled, amid a primary election cycle that has made politicians the “get” guests of the moment. But this turn of current events has also exposed NBC’s late-night champ in a less flattering way, demonstrating that he’s fine staging bits with Justin Timberlake and less comfortable with substantive conversation.
Colbert’s program remains a bit of a work in progress, but he brought enormous goodwill with him to the job, and further cemented his reputation last week with an interview with Vice President Joe Biden that was touching and funny all at once. And while Fallon rebounded from Colbert’s big sampling numbers to reclaim the top spot ratings-wise, his woefully thin encounter with Donald Trump the next night fed the perception that his is the “safe” choice for candidates, perhaps, but also less likely to win the admiration of peers and pundits.
In that regard, the Fallon-Colbert relationship – while still in flux – already resembles the Leno-David Letterman dynamic, without the bad blood or feuding (but with a healthy dose of jockeying for guests). Fallon might be the ratings leader, as Leno was, but Colbert figures to be the choice of most critics and media elites, which might not be as easy to monetize but carries a certain cachet nevertheless.
Jon Stewart, notably, was never the most-watched late-night comic, but his footprint echoed through the media louder than anyone else. Similarly, Colbert figures to get more next-day mileage out of Monday’s thoughtful exchange with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer — asking him why court members can disagree amicably, unlike the other branches of government — than Fallon will out of a game-show segment featuring Benicio del Toro and Jessica Alba.
While the current late-night shuffle remains fluid – including Trevor Noah’s upcoming “The Daily Show” premiere – a few more coups for Colbert coupled with content-free interviews of serious figures by Fallon and it won’t take long for those positions to calcify. As it stands, when Fallon, impersonating Trump, referred to himself as a “lightweight,” the joke struck uncomfortably close to home after watching them chat.
Fallon has clearly connected with a segment of the audience, and his ratings have given NBC’s Peacock mascot plenty to crow about, especially after the botched late-night baton pass that preceded his ascent to the “Tonight Show” throne. It’s worth noting, too, that while trailing in the ratings gnawed at Letterman, Leno always laughed off the notion that his rival was more respected in certain circles, although he acknowledged the perception. When Entertainment Weekly left him off its list of the “50 Funniest People” in the late ’90s, Leno quipped, “”It’s like your wife’s family. It’d be nice if they like you, but it’s not the end of the world.”
That certainly seems like the healthier attitude in light of the inordinate success that both enjoyed. And while Colbert and Fallon are unlikely to match their predecessors’ longevity, they could find themselves in a similar competitive predicament. Granted, late-night viewing is no longer a zero-sum game: options have proliferated, and those with DVRs so inclined can easily record more than one show. The lack of personal animus between the current hosts (compared to the ill feelings triggered by the Johnny Carson succession battle) also makes this less a late-night “war” than more of a friendly skirmish.
Much of this was fairly predictable — perhaps especially among those who admire Colbert and are less keen on Fallon — back when CBS first announced hiring him. Nevertheless, if trends continue along their present course, the new late-night divide could wind up, in a few key ways, looking a whole lot like the old one.