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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Bringing Talk Back To Late Night

As I thought would be the case after David Letterman's long goodbye, I've abandoned the habit of recording any of the late night shows (except for Jon Stewart, who begins his final three-week run next Monday). The reason is simple -- they're no longer about conversations. They're about stunts, games, and desperate attempts to create tomorrow's viral video.

For example, last night, Jimmy Fallon had Lebron James as his first guest. It didn't take long for them to quit talking and start dunking nerf balls into the baskets attached to their heads. In the next segment, Fallon brought out Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to play another game called "True Confessions." Then he showed a trailer for their movie, "Sisters" -- which won't premiere until the end of this year -- without asking a single question about its origin, their on-screen chemistry, or anything more than its release date

What a missed opportunity to have Fey and Poehler (two of the cleverest and most entertaining people in showbiz) plus James (who co-stars in Amy Schumer's "Trainwreck") and instead of being prepared with questions that will elicit interesting anecdotes, Fallon resorted to playing games with them. I like Fallon, but his approach isn't that different from that of an entertainment director on a cruise ship.

On the same night, James Corden had Rod Stewart as his guest and they ended up doing a mildly entertaining bit involving some kind of car pool karaoke. Again, a missed opportunity to talk to a Rock and Roll Hall Of Famer whose career experience would certainly be fodder for a good story or two.

I have a feeling I'll change my mind about regularly setting the DVR for late night when Stephen Colbert debuts his "Late Show" on September 8th. I've been watching the topical videos he has released regularly for the last few weeks, including bits about the Supreme Court marriage decision, Donald Trump's campaign kickoff, and the New York Stock Exchange computer meltdown. They're all funny, and in his own voice -- as opposed to his former alter ego on "The Colbert Report" (in fact, I'm pretty sure I heard him refer to himself a couple of times as COAL-burt with a hard T at the end, rather than coal-BEAR).

What's always made Colbert special is his feisty combination of intelligence and quick wit. I'd bet that his "Late Show" will consist of actual conversations with guests. Perhaps not a full-fledged return to a Dick Cavett-like talk show -- there will probably be comedy bits and wacky remotes in each hour -- but I hope that he'll take time to invite other smart people and engage them in real repartee. He proved he could do it while improvising in character on Comedy Central; now I look forward to seeing him do it as himself on CBS.

The video Colbert released today is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. In it, he starts discussing the approach of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto, where it allowed us to see the dwarf planet in high-resolution for the first time. But then, he introduced Neil deGrasse Tyson (America's Go-To Scientist) and the two of them spent more than a dozen minutes discussing the mission to Pluto. Both men are brilliant, but also cognizant of how to entertain and inform simultaneously.

Neither Fallon nor Corden (nor Kimmel nor Myers) could, or would, do this. I hope this is a mere sample of what we can expect when Colbert's show debuts in a couple of months...