The New York Times’ media reporter John Koblin made the front of Business Day Monday with yet another fawning article from the NYT about how the Trump presidency has given a liberal television comedian a new lease on ratings popularity: “How Colbert Finally Got on a Roll.” It’s basically the same article the Times has been running for two months:
One of the most surprising turnaround stories in recent television history began on one of the most surprising nights in political history.
On Nov. 8, Stephen Colbert was hosting a live election night special for CBS’s sister cable network, Showtime. A program that was built around an expected Hillary Clinton victory went off the rails almost as soon as it went on the air at 11 p.m. As election returns came in, audience members, who had been asked to shut off their phones an hour earlier, gasped as it became clear that Donald J. Trump could very well become president. Mr. Colbert looked dumbstruck.
Sensing the gravity of the moment, Chris Licht, the executive producer of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” walked over to Mr. Colbert’s desk during a musical performance.
“Stop being funny and go and just be real,” Mr. Licht told the host.
What followed was what Mr. Licht described in a recent interview as the turning point for Mr. Colbert, who had struggled to gain his footing on CBS after shedding the pompous-pundit character that made him famous on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”
Five months later, “The Late Show” has done what a year ago seemed unthinkable: It has become the most viewed show in late night. Mr. Colbert’s show has reeled off nine consecutive weeks of ratings victories over Jimmy Fallon’s once-invincible “Tonight Show,” and is poised to make it 10 in a row when the latest numbers come out on Tuesday.
Just like “Saturday Night Live” and MSNBC’s prime-time lineup, Mr. Colbert has benefited from his decidedly anti-Trump point of view. But even though Mr. Trump’s victory appears to have single-handedly turned the late-night comedy race upside down, Mr. Colbert’s rise is the product of months of meticulous work. The goal: to earn the chance to be -- as Mr. Licht put it -- “resampled” by viewers.
After warmly documenting how Colbert had become more relaxed on stage, Koblin pivoted to the unforgivable act by Colbert’s late-night rival Jimmy Fallon:
Then, in September, on NBC, Mr. Fallon tousled Mr. Trump’s hair when he was a guest on his show, causing an uproar. Some critics of Mr. Fallon say that moment was the breaking point that led to his declining ratings this year.
“The theory that that hair tousle made a difference is based on the supposition that Jimmy’s fans went to him for political acumen,” Mr. Colbert said. “I don’t think so. They go there for fun. They go there for his nature, his spirit.”
Mr. Colbert and his writing staff, meanwhile, developed a crystal-clear point of view on how they felt about Mr. Trump.
Adding to the celebration was “Riding a Wave, and Treading Water,” by critic James Poniewozik back on February 22:
After Donald J. Trump riffed and ranted his way through a jaw-dropping news conference on Feb. 16, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon both got out their knives.
The difference: Mr. Colbert brought a carving knife, and Mr. Fallon brought a butter knife.
Poniewozik hit the same points as Koblin would later.
Mr. Colbert is not, right now, the fiercest of the late-night anti-Trumpists (that’s Samantha Bee), the most depthful (John Oliver) or the most potent (Seth Meyers, whose “A Closer Look” segments are killing). But he has a bigger stage, and he seems to have figured out how to be authentic within that space.
This was a process: The early months of his show were fitfully topical but tentative, as Mr. Colbert tried to find a voice without the filter of his arch fake-pundit character. His live shows during the 2016 conventions were a creative turning point. But the philosophical turning point may have been on election night, when Mr. Colbert hosted a live special on Showtime.
Colbert has succeeded by sharpening his hostility toward the president and reassembling his hip millennial fanbase, and Poniewozik eagerly forwarded some of Colbert’s greatest hits.
Instead, he has put his game face on. Mr. Colbert’s comedy hasn’t become radically different, but it has been more frank and caustic. After the president implied that something dire had just taken place in Sweden (it hadn’t), on Monday night he quoted former Prime Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden, who asked, “What has he been smoking?” Mr. Colbert suggested a certain part of the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s anatomy.
Some of Mr. Colbert’s deadpan jokes on the Sweden story -- “Never Fjorget” -- could have come straight off the “Report”: “Tragically, Sweden is the third not-a-terrorist-attack that has not shocked the world in the last month. First, there wasn’t the Bowling Green Massacre, then no one was lost in Atlanta.”
That joke isn’t aging particularly well, given recent terror incidents in Sweden.
Poniewozik also couldn’t let Fallon’s hair thing go:
Mr. Fallon has seemed to be behind the cultural moment at least since September, when he invited Mr. Trump onto his show to fluff his combover. To Mr. Fallon’s critics, it was “normalizing,” which has become a buzzword for any insufficiently zealous response to Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Poniewozik stepped out from behind the Colbert puppet to attack Trump himself.
But things aren’t normal. Not even Mr. Trump’s fans -- who voted for him to deliver a shock to the system -- see it that way. Mr. Trump made his campaign angry, cultural and personal. As president, he has continued to goad his followers into a war of all against all with internal enemies: refugees, the media, any Americans deemed less “real.”
In his February 8 report, “Political Bite Gives Colbert Ratings Edge Over Fallon,” Koblin proved that the Times and the rest of the liberal press will never forgive host Jimmy Fallon for treating Trump like a human being.
Mr. Colbert’s show has taken on a political charge in recent months, and it has only accelerated since Mr. Trump won the election. He has been openly critical of Mr. Trump, and last week Jon Stewart, Mr. Colbert’s old late-night partner on Comedy Central, appeared in a scathing segment.
Mr. Fallon, by contrast, has been criticized for being somewhat apolitical and appearing too cozy with Mr. Trump, especially in a September segment when he playfully tousled Mr. Trump’s hair.