Stephen Colbert is bringing subversion back to late-night TV

In a genre full of viral bits, his Late Show gets a bit rebellious

Stephen Colbert isn't going to be the only adult in late-night TV, exactly. Like his late-night comedian brethren — and yes, they are all men — Colbert has an appealing childlike quality. He unabashedly likes comic books and is an expert on J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings novels. In his Late Show debut on Tuesday, he wrapped his product placement inside a tale of evil amulets and cursed (toy) monkey paws.

But Colbert will bring some very welcome gravity to a genre that, quite frankly, seems to be addicted to helium.

He won't be self-serious like HBO's Bill Maher, or wonkishly activist like John Oliver, or even as overtly political as the gang at Comedy Central: Larry Wilmore, Trevor Noah (soon), and, until recently, Jon Stewart and, well, Stephen Colbert. CBS Colbert knows his job, and that's entertainment. But based on his Late Show premiere and his recent interviews, he's going to serve up a little tartness with the sugar.

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Since Jimmy Fallon took over for Jay Leno at NBC's Tonight Show — which essentially invented the late-night genre — the nocturnal talk-show scene has largely solidified into a viral "bit" factory. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily. Fallon, at his best, is great entertainment — as is fellow earnest celebrity enthusiast James Corden, who follows Colbert at the CBS Late Late Show. And playing games or laughing along with celebrities sometimes elicits moments of genuinely arresting TV.

The problem with the Fallon model is that it can get old quickly. How many times do you really want to watch movie stars play beer pong in cartoonishly large cups? Or the host gush over how amazing his guests are?

The other Jimmy, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, builds his viral hits off Leno-like "man on the street" interviews where his staff allow regular people to say really stupid things. His female guests tend to dress skimpier, and he isn't above shooting for the YouTube gold by scratching at the lowest common denominator. But even he feels emboldened to mock Fallon's celebrity parlor games. Because it's Kimmel, that comes off like a practical joke.

When Colbert pokes fun at late-night conventions, as he did on Tuesday, he seems likely to cut a little deeper, upending genre staples with a gentler jab and a self-referential wink. In this chat with George Clooney, Colbert mocks the fabricated familiar bonhomie between host and guest and the format's reliance on allowing celebrities to sell their wares during the interview portion. (Isn't it enough to be on TV? No.) But you may not even notice the gentle subversiveness until it's over:

Colbert's predecessor, David Letterman, brought a healthy, sometimes caustic subversion to late-night TV. Conan O'Brien added an element of awkward kookiness. Before Colbert took to the air at CBS, Seth Meyers at NBC's Late Night was really the only one occasionally dabbling in late-night sedition.

We're only one show into Colbert's run at Late Show, but he seems to be embracing Letterman's renegade legacy, in his own, gentler way. That's not too surprising, given that Colbert's previous show was a successful experiment in genre-tweaking.

The new Late Show won't be The Colbert Report — Colbert won't be in character, mostly, and having CBS president Les Moonves in the front row of the audience with a kill switch was a funny if sober reminder of the pressure Colbert faces earning his paycheck on network TV. And it's yet to be seen how Colbert will adapt to or change the world of viral video (sponsored "bonus" clips that didn't make the broadcast seems like an interesting possibility).

But nation, the signs are promising for people who like a little rebellion in their late-night comedy. And if you're not paying attention, you might miss it.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.