On April 22, 2014, a little more late night television history was made as Stephen Colbert was David Letterman’s guest on the program to which Colbert is the heir apparent in CBS’ prime late night slot. And yet, Colbert was not who the public wanted as their first choice; instead it was (and may still be) Tina Fey. Ask yourself who you’d want to see and hear five nights a week, and expect them to be consistently witty: Stephen or Tina?
The interview lasted for one fifth of the program as Colbert told a lighthearted tale of how he’d crossed paths with “The Late Show” and Letterman twice so far in his career. When Colbert was a student in college, he accompanied his girlfriend at the time to an interview for an internship with Letterman’s show to simply keep her company. In the waiting room, Colbert was approached by a show staffer who assumed he was there to try out. The staffer invited Stephen to at least come in and talk for a few minutes.
Turns out that Colbert’s girlfriend was not the producer’s choice for the prospective intern spot, but Colbert was. When Letterman asked him why he didn’t take the job at the time, Colbert quipped that it was because Letterman didn’t pay any money then. The crowd chuckled at the irony.
The next story “almost with the show” story that Colbert related was a blast from the past. Flashing forward from college to circa 1997, Colbert and his writing partner Paul Dinello auditioned as writers for the show. The material they submitted was a seasonal piece for a Christmas Top Ten list. Letterman asked him if he would read it last night, and the crowd was polite, even though the list was really not up to what audiences have come to expect as “Letterman wit.”
It’s easy to forget that Letterman isn’t the heart and soul of the show’s opening monologue and various Top Ten lists. For 14 years it was brothers Justin and Eric Stangel who were Dave’s head writers; as of January 2013, Matt Roberts stepped up to that position while the Stangel brothers remained “of counsel” but also primarily slid over to Worldwide Pants for other projects that Letterman and partner Rob Burnett are developing. Two former “Late Show” writers were Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, who made millions for CBS with the banal, unchallenging, “How I Met Your Mother” series.
So, the greatest distinction that’s clear is that Colbert can write as funny as he delivers. Yet, one small factor seems to have been overlooked by CBS: he wasn’t the public’s first choice. Nine days ago, social media expert Saif Ajani came up with the numbers that are strong facts worth considering. Fewer people give a flying fig about Chelsea Handler, an encouraging sign of clear thinking.
Ajani, Co-Founder of social media leader, Keyhole, shared new statistics based on a clearer picture that “Twitter users chimed in on who should replace Letterman, and there was one clear winner: Tina Fey, by a mile!”
The Top Ten vote getters were, in order of popularity: Tina Fey (32.7%), Amy Poehler (10.9%), Stephen Colbert (10.9%), Ellen DeGeneres (9.5%), Chelsea Handler (8.5%), Conan O’Brien (8.5%), Jon Stewart (6.1%), Neil Patrick Harris (4.1%), Jerry Seinfeld (3.4%), and Craig Ferguson (3.4%).
Colbert is the brilliant choice if you are seeking to find someone with self-deprecating humor who won’t disturb the status quo over at CBS’ Late Night. Colbert is witty but does he have long-term staying power? Sure, he's far better than Craig Ferguson, who follows "The Late Show" for now, whose vulgar, one-dimensional diatribe is tolerated by some who are just not ready to go to sleep. That opinion is somewhat supported at Ferguson's coming in tenth of the Top Ten vote-getters. So much for his expectation that he was the heir apparent, if he actually held one.
At the high end of the spectrum, Tina Fey has been nominated 77 times for awards and has won 32 of them, including Golden Globes, Primetime Emmy Awards, AFI Awards, Gracie Allen Awards, and the MTV Movie Awards, and she’s been winning them for over a decade. Naturally, Tina Fey was not selected. If you follow the logic of the “Saturday Night Live” path to fame and quasi-fortune, it was SNL that gave late night audiences a first view at Jimmy Fallon’s multidimensional talent.
Seth Myers would have been a nice guy on a dais at the local Lions Club banquet circuit were it not for SNL fame showing his hilarious writing and deadpan delivery. But he’s the brilliant follow-up to Jimmy Fallon, and seems to be a better interviewer than Fallon. Fallon is funny, but when the show focuses primarily on Fallon, rather than the guests, it can be a bit wearisome. Amy Poehler got her big shot at prime time with “Parks and Rec” because of "SNL." And then there’s Tina Fey. It should have been a clue for CBS to snap up the competition’s (NBC) moneymaker, but they didn’t.
There’s still a long time between today and “whatever day that Dave decides to leave,” a question that Colbert asked last night and Dave didn’t answer. Letterman has known for some time that his number was up, and the number of jabs he has parried toward CBS chief Les Moonves in the past year especially, has been a prime indication that he wanted to get in all the digs he could, while he could.
Women and late night television entertainment seems to be a combination that programming executives seem to have relegated to “on Saturday night.” As you monitor the atmosphere and public temperament for CBS’ “The Late Show,” you can use Keyhole’s real-time tracker here to keep an eye and watch the trending, up or down, of how Colbert is going to really work out.
Use the hashtag tracker on Keyhole’s site to keep up with #LettermanReplacements as progress continues. Nothing is forever on television, and just because Colbert is today’s heir apparent, you never know what could develop in the interim. As they used to say, “Don’t touch that dial!” If one thing is certain in present-day television, it’s the advertisers who buy the spots that pay the millions for the show to pay its hosts. If you were CBS and you wanted to knock out the competition, specifically Jimmy Fallon, as Jimmy Kimmel is just the ABC “cardboard cutout with live bands” of the moment, is the answer really Stephen Colbert?
Who would you pick? Make your choice and tweet it to CBS (@CBS and @CBSTweet). They do pay attention to their Twitter accounts and they understand them. And just remember, David Letterman couldn’t quite figure out what a hashtag was. When "NCIS" character Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) asked earlier this season, “What’s a hashtag?” America laughed along with the joke. Letterman didn't really have a clue what one was, as countless skits proved his lack of social media communication skills, as well as his distinctly massive disinterest in learning new tricks.
Late night audiences are social media savvy, up to and including card-carrying members of the AARP, who are equally hip, cool, and similarly want to be entertained. And Dave Letterman had long stopped being entertaining. Once again, is the answer to CBS’ late night programming challenge really Stephen Colbert? A look through the key hole, or a better look through Keyhole.co will tell. In television, it’s all about the numbers, and the ratings.