Robert Hampton

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20th December 2014

End of two eras
Posted by at 2.59pm | No responses | Television

‘Folks, if this is your first time tuning into the Colbert Report, I have some terrible news’

The world of US late night TV continues to be a mystery to most Britons. In the UK, after the late news, there’s a dearth of original programming. No-one is going to spend money on programmes which will go out when most people are getting ready for bed.

Over in the US, however, many networks stay up into the small hours with a multitude of late night shows. Most of them follow the format established decades ago by Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show: a topical monologue from the host, a comedy sketch, then some celebrity guests and a performance from a musician or stand-up comedian before the closing credits roll.

Shaking up the landscape in 2005, however, was The Colbert Report. Dispensing with the tried-and-true format, Colbert went with political and media satire. It’s often cutting, occasionally brutal, but always uproariously funny.

Crucial to the show’s success has been the show’s host, Stephen Colbert – or rather, his alter ego, “Stephen Colbert”. Building on the pompous news reporter character he’d developed on The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert the character was a “well-intentioned, poorly informed high-status idiot”, an unashamed, scarily accurate parody of the bloviating hosts found on Fox News and elsewhere. For the entire run of the show, he has stayed in character, even in many interviews and public appearances outside the programme itself.

The fictional persona – his early years at a local television station, being part of a new wave band in the 80s, his fear of bears. It’s a commitment to a role that few actors could maintain.

One of the most memorable appearances came early in the Report‘s run, when Colbert was invited to perform at the White House Correspondents Dinner. It’s normally a fairly staid affair, with comedians delivering tepid jokes to polite laughter. Colbert however delivered a blistering satire on the Presidency of George W Bush, while the commander-in-chief sat a few feet away with a face like thunder (reports afterwards stated that the organisers were not fully aware of Colbert’s performing style when they invited him).

He will be hosting The Late Show as Stephen Colbert the real person, so the final appearance of the character was on the final Colbert Report which aired in the US on Thursday night. Sadly, the show never really gained any traction over here, and the Colbert Nation web site is geoblocked, so we will have to rely on a dodgy YouTube upload.

His final sign-off is worth watching, not least for the glimpse of Henry Kissinger not knowing the words to We’ll Meet Again.

And what of the current host of The Late Show, David Letterman? He signs off in May 2015, which means this is his last Christmas on the air. An annual tradition has been Darlene Love stopping by on the last show before Christmas to sing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and CBS has put together a montage of her performances over the past years.

There’s a definite shift from one generation to the next going on in American television at the moment. I’m intrigued to see what Colbert does with The Late Show, but also sorry to see the retirement of David Letterman and the end of the Report, one of the best shows out there.

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