On Tuesday night, CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert returned to a format that served him well throughout the 2016 election season: the live show. Previously, he used these types of broadcasts to respond to the unpredictability of political conventions and debates. During his Showtime election special, he used the format to respond to the results as they came in, giving his show an unmatched, up-to-the-minute electricity. Given a more staid event—President Trump’s address to Congress—Colbert managed to find humor all the same, with dextrous jokes that wildly outpaced network rivals Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. The evening was just another data point explaining why Colbert has, after a shaky start, reversed an age-old state of affairs and brought CBS’s Late Show to the top of the ratings.
Colbert opened the show with a lengthy monologue, one that got an extra charge from its being live. It was an elegant achievement, beginning with a joke about a misleading CNN headline implying Trump was to “leave White House soon” (he did indeed, to go to Congress) and ending with a mocking prediction that Trump’s mastery of image-making would get him re-elected. “We can all agree on one thing: One down, seven to go.”
The sharpness and flexibility of the monologue—more than 12 minutes’ worth of expertly constructed comedy about an event that concluded less than two hours earlier—was bolstered by the rest of the broadcast, which also included an equally witty bit on the Democratic party’s response, as delivered by former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear from a diner-like set. He responded to Beshear’s strange remark that recipients of Affordable Care Act benefits aren’t “aliens from some distant planet” (“Otherwise, they sure as hell wouldn’t be coming here to get decent healthcare,” Colbert quipped), calling the opposition’s response “a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show.” Colbert at once made equal time to mock both parties and expressed a strong political point of view: Disappointment that the response to Trump’s potency read quite so flaccidly on camera.
Colbert’s success was also made more resonant by the dead zone surrounding him on broadcast TV. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, whose handling of politics at the Oscars was so inept it would have been wiser to leave out, declared his broadcast a “Trump-Free Tuesday”—an odd choice following the President’s having made major news in primetime, but an understandable one. Why try to compete when Colbert so thoroughly dominates? Still, Kimmel made a tiresome reference to Trump, referring to the color of his skin and, in a visual bit involving a jar in which those who mentioned the president had to deposit money, his hair. Much as with Kimmel’s mocking of Trump’s Twitter at the Oscars, it was hard not to wonder if he knows there are new and more substantive lines of comic inquiry available. And NBC’s Jimmy Fallon tried to split the difference, with outdated material about the Democrats’s “pre-buttal” to Trump’s speech—a speech about which Fallon, without the benefit of going live, had little to say. He delivered, with little seeming enthusiasm, dated material about Kellyanne Conway putting her feet on an Oval Office couch. Maybe it’d have been better to just skip politics altogether.
After all, it’d be impossible to beat Colbert on what is now firmly his turf. The degree to which interest in political news has amped up over the course of the past 12 months has made for an intriguing reversal of fortune. As a host who’d been visibly uncomfortable with the fripperies of late-night talk—the interviewing starlets, the corny bits responding to minor-key headlines—Colbert suddenly found the audience was hungry for exactly what he could provide. Colbert’s live shows after last year’s conventions and debates felt like an insurgent act of a rebellious upstart just beginning to find his voice; his Tuesday show felt like he’d truly found it.
Perhaps more crucially to CBS, he set the agenda, with both Kimmel and Fallon seeming to respond in their ways to what he was doing. Colbert’s current ratings advantage is conditional (it’s in total viewers, not the “key” 18-49 demographic advertisers prize) and fairly new. But he’s rapidly establishing himself, in the Trump era, as something that transcends numbers: The defining face of late night.