Stephen Colbert reached back into his past Monday night to build viewership for the future. The host revived the boastful right-wing commentator who was the center of his “Colbert Report” series while enlisting former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart in a funny segment that kicked off an important two weeks for his CBS late-night program.
The appearances had been telegraphed in recent days, and are part of a series of live broadcasts meant to help Colbert play off the events of the national Republican and Democrat conventions taking place this week and next, respectively, in Cleveland and Philadelphia. The show relied heavily on the comedic bits that made Colbert a household name and featured just one celebrity interview.
Colbert, in an elaborate bit that employed both pre-taped and live elements, pretended to visit a rural home, where he found both Stewart and the blowhard host Colbert portrayed on Comedy Central between 2005 and 2014. The “fake” Colbert, carrying a Captain America shield, returned to the studio to deliver a live “Word” segment that was a recurring part of the Comedy Central show. In it, the old Colbert analyzed the differences between “truthiness,” a word that formed a signature moment in his old series, and “Trumpiness,” or the qualities of the nation’s presumptive Republican candidate, Donald Trump.
Colbert’s series has fared well in season-to-date ratings, largely because of the outsize audience he gained when his program premiered last fall. Now, he’s duking it out with ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” The two weeks of live broadcasts are likely meant to emphasize the qualities CBS wants to see in the program. Network executives have described “Late Show” as a venue that hinges on Colbert’s ability to reference current events and interview newsmakers – an important distinction from broadcast time-slot rivals like NBC’s “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and the Kimmel program on ABC. Those two series depend more heavily on games Fallon plays with guests or pranks that Kimmel puts into action.
This evening’s “Late Show” opened with a pre-taped song-and-dance number. Colbert’s monologue played directly off of events that had taken place at the RNC just hours before he went on the air. A segment in the middle of the program had Colbert visiting the convention in Cleveland and storming (then being thrown off) the stage. Actor Sam Waterston made an appearance in a taped bit at the end, taking viewers on a tour of humorous convention moments. The show’s sole interview, with “Star Trek” actress Zoe Saldana, was brief.
Colbert faces serious competition this week -and not just in his time slot. Many of late-night’s other players will also vie for viewer attention and try to rise to notice by tackling politics over the next two weeks.
Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” will tape or broadcast live from the conventions each week. Seth Meyers plans live “Late Night” broadcasts on the last day of each confab. Bill Maher will do live, half-hour versions of HBO’s “Real Time” each week to respond to convention events. Samantha Bee will air a Wednesday convention special based on time she spent in Cleveland. And “Saturday Night Live” is getting in on the action by dispatching its “Weekend Update” correspondents, Colin Jost and Michael Che, to do their faux newscast at midnight on the next two Wednesdays on MSNBC.