Jimmy Fallon might want to start seeing Stephen Colbert as more of a blessing than a curse. It could be the key to rebuilding his audience.
There’s reportedly “turmoil” over at the “Tonight Show” in light of the slim demo victory Colbert won over Fallon for the 2018-19 season. Colbert’s surge is widely attributed to his focus on anti-Trump political comedy. That’s probably correct.
Colbert believes there’s a demand for the “Late Show’s” more political focus because in the Trump era, “confusion leads to anxiety, and the anxiety makes the audience want the jokes.”
“By the spring of 2016, we had figured out how I want to do a monologue,” he recently told The New York Times. “We never do setup, punch, setup, punch. Instead, it’s always, I’m going to tell back to you what happened today.” (Emphasis in the original.)
“The anxiety makes the audience want the jokes” is an important assertion. Back in March, I tried to square the circle of how Colbert, the “most divisive” late-night host, was beating Fallon, the “most favorable” one. The answer is likely that Colbert correctly identified the “anxious” chunk of the late-night audience and built a show for them. (Jay Leno seems to agree with Colbert’s theory.)
In the splintered media landscape, an average of 3.8 million viewers is all Colbert needs to beat Fallon. He doesn’t have to appeal across party lines, or compromise between viewers who care about politics and those who don’t. He just has to find a niche audience big enough to sustain good ratings, and give it exactly what it wants.
This is why Colbert is the “most divisive” man in late night—and it’s actually good news for both CBS and NBC.
Of course, that’s not how the Peacock Network sees it. As NBC’s anxiety over Colbert mounted, Fallon got more political and more overtly anti-Trump. Colbert still beat him. Fallon may be a liberal and a comic, but liberal comedy is Colbert’s brand. (We also don’t know if Fallon’s viewers went to Colbert or just tuned out entirely.)
Fallon excels at fun. He’s happy. If there’s a chunk of the late-night audience that wants Colbert to explain the news (if that’s what you call it), surely there’s still a sizable chunk of the audience that still just wants to decompress before bed. Maybe that involves gentler political jokes, maybe it involves less politics altogether. But rather than competing for Colbert’s audience—a tack that feels unnatural for Fallon anyway—he should consider swerving back into the old lane.
That isn’t to say he should be Jay Leno. Fallon is well-positioned to usher late-night into a new era. His comedy is youthful and energetic, but also unifying in a way the genre used to be. It’s hard to find a comedian with a similar capacity for cross-party and cross-generational appeal.
For Fallon and the “Tonight Show,” the best strategy may be to let the Trump-obsessed liberals swarm Colbert and focus on creating the show for everyone else.