CBS loves running image-building spots – as it did during the Super Bowl – touting how the network is No. 1 in various categories. Late night, alas, doesn’t fall into that column, which likely explains why the network took the unprecedented step of using the big game to showcase “Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” the best, but far from most watched, entry in the crowded late-night race. Still, Sunday’s live episode felt mostly like a wasted opportunity – one that probably won’t win many converts among those football fans sober enough to stick around.
Although the network sought to engineer a handoff directly from the extended post-game show to Colbert, by then plenty of air had been let out of the ball. And while there was some energy in the opening sequence – which worked in President Obama (pre-taped) and astronaut Scott Kelly, the show appeared trapped between trying to do all it could to maximize the live/football connection and simply delivering a star-heavy episode.
As a result, Colbert had to somewhat awkwardly interrupt his not-particularly-riveting chat with Tina Fey and Margot Robbie, there to plug the movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” to conduct a satellite interview with Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. Nor did it help that the segment was mediated by CBS Sports play-by-play guy Jim Nantz, perhaps the least-funny person on the network’s payroll.
Then again, the guest lineup felt pretty uninspired overall in light of the circumstances, including the aforementioned duo, Will Ferrell, and Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, who Colbert introduced as “Donald Trump’s Kryptonite.”
In addition to squeezing in too much, given all the football-related shenanigans, Ferrell’s extended “Wild Kingdom” spoof largely shanghaied the show and dragged on way too long. The same could be said for a taped piece about football celebrations featuring Comedy Central’s Key and Peele, which also felt like a rather thinly veiled excuse to have them on in order to plug their new movie.
For CBS, it has to be a trifle irritating to have seen the initial enthusiasm and goodwill Colbert generated largely evaporate ratings-wise, leaving him well behind NBC’s inferior “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” That said, “Late Show” is doing well enough, and the network can derive some satisfaction from having a host who seems able to credibly pivot to more serious topics and guests – some of his interviews with presidential candidates have been substantive and first-rate – in a way that looks beyond Fallon’s lighter-than-air grasp.
The best portion of Sunday’s episode, in fact, fell into that category, with Colbert engaging Kelly in a too-brief discussion near the very end about her definition of feminism. Given some of the filler that occupied the hour, it was too bad by then they had run out of time.
Colbert’s conventional celebrity interviews, by contrast, tend to be a mixed bag. Perhaps not surprisingly, his strength remains the time he spends behind the desk after his monologue – the part of the show that most closely resembles his previous stint at Comedy Central.
At least on the major networks, Stephen Colbert can lay claim to the title of the smartest show in late night, which, as his predecessor David Letterman and plenty of high school kids have discovered, seldom translates into being the most popular. Still, if CBS was hoping to give him the equivalent of a Super Bowl bump, the bottom line is that Sunday’s less-than-super live edition won’t do much to help the cause.
Note: This has been updated to correct the name of astronaut Scott Kelly, who was misidentified as his brother, Mark.