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Frank Rich and Stephen Colbert at Vulture Festival. Photo by Jenn Murphy

Much has been said in recent months about the latest late-night battle between Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” and Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” In the early months of the new “Late Show’s” run, when Colbert somewhat struggled to figure out what his show’s voice would be amongst the many other late-night programs (and the famous character he was trying to step away from), Fallon continued to reign supreme with his fun, party-like atmosphere. But then the election happened, and a huge portion of the country didn’t feel like partying anymore.

 

Now, Colbert is beating Fallon in terms of viewership (albeit with some caveats) with his thoughtful yet scathing nightly takes on the current political landscape. Or, as Colbert referred to it at last weekend’s Vulture Festival (which was great, and I would know because I was there) the current political “dumpster fire.”

 

Colbert talked with Frank Rich at the event about how he’s choosing to handle the “dumpster fire,” saying, “it feels like things are on fire, and I’m not a fireman. I’m a guy who dances next to the fire and says, ‘Let’s all admit this is on fire. Do you think this should be on fire? Is this something we want to burn today for one man’s ego?”

 

To me, this is the epitome of what Colbert is doing that Fallon isn’t, and it’s what has caused him to currently surpass Fallon in viewership. Colbert (like Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee and John Oliver and Trevor Noah, to some extent) isn’t afraid to really discuss what is happening in the political world, because he knows that it’s in large part the primary thing currently on people’s minds. He’s able to tap into the things that are really making people nervous or frustrated and create points of discussion and connection that keep everyone from teetering off the edge. It’s a clever mix of topical horror and humor, something that seems to be increasingly popular in all forms of entertainment, from movies like “Get Out” to TV series like “Black Mirror.”

 

And none of this is to say that Jimmy Fallon isn’t a great host or entertainer. He was wonderful for years on “Late Night” and has maintained his charming showmanship on “The Tonight Show.” And sure, Fallon will frequently address the actions or behaviors of our current leadership, but he never cuts as deep or goes as hard as Colbert does. And that’s his choice. He’s made it clear that he wants to keep things light, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that lightness isn’t exactly what people are currently seeking out.  Perhaps once things calm down (if they ever do), people will want to go back to the “Tonight Show” party. But until then, it seems like Colbert and his “dumpster fire” dance will be on top.

 

What do you think? Which late-night host do you like the best? Are you also currently obsessed with Maya Rudolph as Dionne Warwick on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt“? Let me know in the comments, but keep it nice! And, of course…

 

Keep it classy.

Jenn

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