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Following yesterday’s announcement that Stephen Colbert will be inheriting The Late Show from David Letterman in 2015, The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon posted on Twitter, “I’d like to welcome the great @StephenAtHome to network late night and also congratulate him on his new name: Jimmy Colbert.” Will Colbert be stealing Fallon’s first name? No, of course not. Will he be stealing some of Fallon’s mojo? Probably. Get ready for a new kind of late-night war: the battle for can’t-miss musical moments.
One of the reasons why Jimmy Fallon has enjoyed such a speedy ascendance from Saturday Night Live breakout to late-night host to the new face of The Tonight Show is his ability to not only recognize the musical artists worth spotlighting, but to also determine how to manufacture shareable content using those artists. It’s one thing to have the Roots serve as your house band; it’s entirely another to have them slow-jam the news with President Barack Obama. Fallon not only corralled Carly Rae Jepsen and Robin Thicke to play their respective summer smashes “Call Me Maybe” and “Blurred Lines” on his show in consecutive years, but he got both artists to play them using classroom instruments, maximizing the “did-you-see-that?” quality of each performance. Time and time again, Fallon has demonstrated his understanding to not settle for snagging Justin Timberlake to perform his latest single on television, but to also ask JT to rap a medley of classic hip-hop songs alongside the host. The key to Team Fallon’s success as a musical platform has been the one-of-the-kind moments — the ability to dream up something innovative enough that has not been performed before and likely cannot be duplicated — in order to attract online audiences after the fact.
Since Late Night with Jimmy Fallon launched in March 2009, no other late-night network show has rivaled its knack for meme creation, making it all the easier for Fallon to thrive. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was, and Late Night with David Letterman has been, uninterested in exploring shareable music moments, fluke moments like last month’s Future Islands performance aside. Jimmy Kimmel Live! has carved out its own brand of online-friendly sketches, but for the most part has focused on young-skewing spoofs (like the one that enraged Kanye West last September) rather than performance-based content. The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson has never tried to rival Fallon‘s musical draw; Conan and The Arsenio Hall Show have enjoyed inconsistent breakout moments, and the young Late Night with Seth Meyers has already established itself as something of a music-last franchise. It’s been a half-decade since Fallon figured out that hot musical moments produce a hot late-night show — and he remained alone in that realization! Finally, another host with that mindset has emerged.
Remarkably, The Colbert Report has been able to conjure a catalog of legitimately memorable music moments without necessarily needing to do so; Report is, first and foremost, a political satire, riffing on the format of The Daily Show and abiding by that show’s focus on mocking hot-button political issues. Just as The Daily Show never booked musical performers to supplement its Fox News takedowns, the half-hour spinoff that followed each night on Comedy Central was expected to snag more authors than musicians as guests when it premiered in 2005.
But then, Colbert began ramping up his output of music stunts, from the StePhest Colbchella “festival” to the fake fight with the Decemberists to the “who sold out more?” showdown between Vampire Weekend and the Black Keys to last summer’s infamous Daft Punk no-show. These moments were quirky, irregular and tethered to Colbert’s blowhard character on the show, but were often clever enough to garner YouTube hits in the days after their episodes, and demonstrated how much musicians appreciated Colbert’s political shtick (and understood that it was connecting with younger audiences more than the old-guard monologues of late night). By 2008’s A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! special, which featured performances from Elvis Costello, Toby Keith and Feist, Colbert was showing that he was game to compete with the network stars’ musical star power, if only on occasion.
Like Fallon, Colbert is savvy enough to excavate the unique music moments that find eyeballs. And like Fallon, Colbert is not afraid to get silly… as he did on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, when he sang Rebecca Black‘s “Friday” with Taylor Hicks.
Colbert has been able to accomplish a lot as a music curator while serving as the star of a half-hour cable show with a more narrow thematic focus. Imagine what he’ll be able to do with The Late Show, a network platform more conducive to those moments. Fallon has one more year to enjoy that late-night sandbox all to himself, and then, the games begin.
This story originally appeared on Billboard.com.
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek