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Stephen Colbert wants to give millennials their own Letterman

Other late-night shows are gaming the internet, but CBS wants you to tune in

CBS

It seems like everyone was waiting for Stephen Colbert’s debut on The Late Show ever since he killed Death and rode off into the night with Santa Claus. I was among them — but I didn’t watch the premiere live. I waited for the weekend and watched the show like modern people do: by binge-watching an entire week in one sitting. If anything remarkable happened in the meantime, I figured, the content compass of the internet would guide me to it.

The headlines about Colbert’s first week on The Late Show came not from funny bits and wacky antics, but from his interviews. Compared with his NBC analog Jimmy Fallon — or even Colbert’s own summer of weird internet blurbsThe Late Show’s early "breakout" moments were more substantive. But while we're only one week in, it’s clear that CBS and Colbert are building something less intent on gaming the internet and more focused on the traditional TV experience. And it looks like Colbert will have to use this stage to prove whether or not his success with millennials can be distilled into something that works on network TV.

The Late Show's standout moments are already substantive

The show’s debut was strong, delivering Colbert’s return to TV with a stirring conversation with Jeb Bush. But it was the second episode, where Elon Musk talked about his grand plans to blow up Mars, that gave Colbert’s new show its first big moment, and the first inclination that Colbert will be able to prime the news cycle with The Late Show like he did with The Colbert Report. Unlike John Oliver’s longform, Jimmy Kimmel’s pranks, or Jimmy Fallon's celebrity games, Colbert does this with good old-fashioned interviews. It was his ability to tease out information and meaning from his guests that kept The Colbert Report in the spotlight, and why a popular conversation starter for the last nine years has been, "Did you see that person on Colbert last night?"

Colbert’s direct competition is a variety show in the truest sense of the phrase. Every night, in a formula he perfected on late night, Jimmy Fallon has upbeat, innocuous conversations with his guests about the movie or television show or book they’re pitching, with Hollywood anecdotes peppered in. Then he subjects them to any number of ludicrous challenges or party games. It’s this recipe — major celebrity + goofy situation + snackable run time — that makes Fallon’s show such easy fodder for internet virality. It’s built to make you feel like you saw the best parts of an episode even if you didn't watch the whole episode. It is the BuzzFeed of late-night talk shows.

Fallon is the BuzzFeed of late night

The Colbert Report had lots of viral moments, too, but they centered mostly around his his (and his character’s) ability to skewer a popular topic in the segments that populated the first half of each episode. Both of these married well with YouTube during its nascency, and much of Colbert’s early success is owed to the video platform. His show grew more experimental over time, and that viral weirdness manifested during pre-production of The Late Show this summer. He became Colbeard. He conversationally bodyslammed Neil deGrasse Tyson. He hosted a public access show in Michigan without telling anyone about it — the internet equivalent of tossing a match over your shoulder at a puddle of gasoline that you just poured. But the first few episodes of the new Late Show were much more conventional, with occasional dashes of weirdness. Where each episode of The Tonight Show feels like a shotgun blast of potentially viral segments, the Late Show’s success feels much more dependent on its host — much like when it was hosted by David Letterman.

Maybe that’s the point. The past year’s conversation around Colbert’s ascension to the Late Show desk has hinged around the question of who he would be. A little more than a week in, that’s shaping up to be a more populist version of the Report-era pundit he played on both his show and during his tenure as a Daily Show correspondent. That makes him similar to Fallon in terms of appeal, but with a drastically different approach. Fallon’s boyish giggles and unbridled excitement — much like his SNL persona, but polished — make him an impish conduit for fun. He’s your proxy in a wild world of celebrity that you’ll almost certainly never be a part of, a professional Buddy. Colbert’s more paternal in the way he approaches his guests, and thus more legitimizing. A funny story told to Fallon is likely to be met with a "no way!" The same story told to Colbert will elicit a "tell me more about that."

In the new show’s first interview, for example, Colbert didn’t merely ask George Clooney to tell the audience about helping people in the Darfur region. He wryly asked, "Why do you care about something going on in another country that doesn’t pay for movies?" When Tim Cook came on to show off the new iPhones, Colbert got him to talk about his disdain for Steve Jobs biopics and his experience coming out in a national magazine while he demoed how 3D Touch works. That incisive nature has always been there, but until now has been filtered through a character. But now it’s on the surface, and being served to a far more mainstream audience.

CBS is betting that Colbert will inspire people to literally tune in every night

Right now, at the beginning of Stephen Colbert’s Late Show tenure, it feels like CBS is set on betting that Colbert’s greatest strength will inspire people to literally tune in every night (or, at the very least, watch the episode on CBS.com the next day). The show is built to be watched as a whole. And you can see, this manifested in the way his headline-making interviews have been treated. Most of them are locked away inside the full episodes; look at the show’s YouTube page and you’ll find a two-minute cut of the interview with Tim Cook, a three-minute clip of his chat with Musk, a few scattered clips of Jeb Bush. His long, emotional interview with Joe Biden is the only exception — it’s there, but split into two parts.

If CBS is going to keep Colbert in that hour-long box, that means he will have to live up to traditional benchmarks like ratings. He’ll have to win over new fans, who are mostly older viewers. He might rack up YouTube views, but it won’t keep him on the air. CBS is unlikely to change how it measures success until it’s unseated as the country’s most popular network, or at least until the current digital metamorphosis of television is complete.