Bill Carter: How Jimmy Fallon Crushed Stephen Colbert (and Everyone Else in Late Night)
The inspired silliness of NBC's reigning champ became everything in a genre where YouTube hits (Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Timberlake battling in a lip-sync contest and Adele singing "Hello" accompanied by classroom instruments are among them) are as relevant as ratings.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
In a year of unprecedented change in late-night television, one date stands out as the defining moment. No, not Sept. 8, the night circled on most calendars — the premiere of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on CBS. Colbert, a Comedy Central alum flush with a second Emmy for outstanding variety series, did arrive with plenty of fanfare.
But none of that mattered — for long. D-day for late-night TV was Sept. 9, when Colbert's splashy, classy introduction to the Ed Sullivan Theater was upstaged abruptly by a commotion a few blocks south at 30 Rock. NBC's Jimmy Fallon came crashing through TV screens with the most boisterous blockbuster hour of entertainment he could fashion. Opening with a blast of dance and song — "History of Rap 6," accompanied by his signature guest, Justin Timberlake — and backing it with Ellen DeGeneres in another regular Fallon bit, a lip sync contest, the Tonight Show host made a statement: Welcome to late night, Stephen.
One prominent late-night player told me facing that show that night was like "going up against Hiroshima and Nagasaki." Fallon clearly had no interest in sitting back to allow the swirl surrounding Colbert's arrival to run its course. Those killer second-night bookings were long in the planning and very much the host's idea, says a Fallon staffer. Colbert's ratings preeminence lasted 24 hours: Fallon beat him the second night — and 55 of the next 58 nights. During recent weeks, the gap has grown in the 18-to-49 demographic coveted by late-night advertisers.
CBS had no realistic hope of knocking Fallon from his perch atop late night — at least not right away. But Colbert's solid early numbers have slid (though he's bringing in a younger audience than his predecessor, David Letterman); the other Jimmy, Kimmel on ABC, has moved ahead of him as well. During Thanksgiving week — admittedly a bit unusual — Colbert fell behind Seth Meyers' NBC show, which plays an hour later.
Several theories have been floated as to why Colbert's opening splash seemed to dry faster than expected. One veteran late-night writer calls him a very funny guy doing a quality show, but "maybe too smart for a mass audience?" Another longtime producer says, simply, "He needs to be more commercial, more social media friendly."
Some speculate Republican viewers have tuned Colbert out, given his Colbert Report incarnation as a blowhard conservative. (A THR poll showed Colbert's audience is only 17 percent Republican, as opposed to 33 percent for Kimmel and 31 percent for Fallon.) Or it simply might be a case of a big talent trying to find footing on a new dance floor. Colbert placed an early emphasis on serious interviews, like his memorable exchange with Joe Biden, but the focus of late seems to be shifting away from talk and toward performance.
Fallon is the obvious center of that movement. He has expanded the boundaries of late night to play to his strengths, which include sketch-show performances, impressions and, especially, music-oriented bits. How popular are the latter? Adele's recent schoolroom bit already has attracted 18 million views on YouTube. A "musical impressions" bit with Christina Aguilera has reached 48 million. A lip sync battle with Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart: 53 million.
Fallon attracts sniping mainly for the lack of edge he brings to interactions with guests. He acknowledges to me, "I get hit for being lightweight." But he makes no apologies: That is not the type of show he is doing, he says. Plenty of serious talk shows exist elsewhere, and clearly a sizable audience has no issue with the emphasis on energized entertainment.
Collecting web views has become increasingly essential to late night as same-day audiences continue to shrink. But not all of the hosts have found signature bits that generate massive YouTube views. Fallon has. So has Kimmel; his "Mean Tweets" segment is a consistent hit, with the second edition topping his video list with 52 million views. Another Kimmel signature, parents taking their kids' Halloween candy, has produced as many as 55 million views.
Kimmel says his show does not specifically plan bits to generate Internet hits, mainly because "we make almost no money on those." Still, they underscore what a mostly younger audience now likes in late night. Another host strong in video is Conan O'Brien; a bit where he, Kevin Hart and Ice Cube hired a Lyft car has 22 million views.
But a true sign of where one late-night trend is moving has been the performance of James Corden — not necessarily on CBS, where he generates modest ratings. But on YouTube, Corden, who in style and skills (he is a Broadway-caliber singer) is most like Fallon, is killing it. Corden was as unknown as any new host probably since O'Brien debuted in 1993, but he consciously set out to brand himself during his first week on the air. So he did a sketch re-creating all of Tom Hanks' movies in six minutes (14 million views) and created the bit now most associated with him, "Carpool Karaoke," with Mariah Carey (12 million views). When he got Justin Bieber to ride with him, the clip exceeded 42 million views. "To be able to have a signature bit that defined the show in the first week, that was just gigantic," Corden tells me.
What has surprised some Colbert fans — including this one — is that he did not fashion surefire pretaped bits for his early weeks. Few of his segments truly have exploded on YouTube, and that might be contributing to the perception that he is not breaking out as many expected. Fortunately, Colbert will get a big platform after CBS' Super Bowl broadcast in February.
But there has been another factor: With Jon Stewart gone, an avenue seemed open for smart, politically based satirical commentary. That plays to Colbert's great strengths: high intelligence and scalpel-sharp wit. But that platform is drawing a crowd. Aside from Colbert, Meyers, as well as Comedy Central's Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore, are playing in that space.
Certainly Noah wants to be there with his version of The Daily Show. He's a bright new talent, but nobody following Stewart was going to shine in comparison, as Comedy Central acknowledged from the outset. Noah has had strong moments — a thorough takedown of Ted Cruz is a recent example — but he also has had growing pains: a tendency to fumble in his delivery and to be a bit too free about laughing at the jokes.
Although a ratings falloff from Stewart was all but guaranteed, a 40 percent drop for Noah is steep. Comedy Central has professed to be unconcerned because Noah's appeal is to millennials. However, he is down about 40 percent among the 18-to-34 audience as well, and surprisingly the show's median age has gone up, from 45.1 to 47.4. That's still far better than any of the network shows: Fallon, 55.2; Kimmel, 56.9; Colbert, 57.8; Corden, 55.7; Meyers, 53.1.
But it's not better than O'Brien, who, with a median age of 42.1, retains his strong appeal among younger viewers. And despite declines in his live broadcast numbers and the handicap of a network (TBS) that does not otherwise produce consistently appealing shows, O'Brien remains a host whose monologue will make you laugh almost any time you tune in.
Perhaps the quietest current late-night success story belongs to Meyers, who, after replacing Fallon on Late Night in February, seemed fogged in for months as the floodlights pointed toward Colbert. But in the summer, Meyers and his executive producer, Mike Shoemaker, made a shrewd shift, stepping away from the traditional stand-up monologue and planting Meyers behind the desk — where he looks more comfortable and familiar thanks to his history as the "Weekend Update" anchor on Saturday Night Live.
Their term "deskalogue" sounds a bit precious, but it makes the point. Yes, it looks like "Update," but his boss probably is not going to object: Lorne Michaels runs both shows. Meyers tells me the desk idea was kicked around when his show debuted, but with only three weeks between his departure from SNL and the start of his Late Night stint, "We were worried the audience wouldn't feel like they were getting anything new — plus, I really wanted people to know I had actual legs and wore pants."
The open behind a desk also recalls Stewart, of course. The commentary format is now the late-night style most in competition with the variety approach favored by Fallon and Corden. The other prominent entrant in the desk-commentary style is HBO's John Oliver, whose Last Week Tonight stands out for its in-depth segments on big issues (drones, the ill treatment of translators in Afghanistan) and the passion in his voice. That makes Oliver the closest heir to Stewart.
But nobody in late night is close to Fallon at the moment. His ratings lead is dominant and, at least so far, unaffected by the cloud that has passed over his sunny presentation: tabloid speculation about the dual falls that damaged his hands. The reports did not find much traction, probably because NBC has not reacted publicly — and has no reason to. Fallon's work ethic seems unquestioned, as the parade of heavily rehearsed bits attests.
The other reason is Fallon's "let's just have fun" demeanor has won him a lot of fans, even among competitors. The veteran late-night writer, who has been on several staffs, says that demeanor represents "the brilliance of Fallon," adding, "He is serving easy-to-eat food, but also hip and delicious."