My friend Wally Podrazik, the television historian who teaches a course called “Future TV,” asked me a question that he was sure I’d turn into a commentary:
Would you say, looking at the landscape since 1992, that Johnny Carson is as timeless as ever and still stands as the best in that genre? Does Colbert have an outside shot at being a respected name in that tradition?
I have cleverly chosen the covers of Time magazine to respond to the “timeless” question.
Can Johnny Carson‘s 30-year late-night career be compared to Stephen Colbert before Colbert’s show even starts? Moreover, it’s 2015. Is Johnny Carson still timeless? If you are under 30, do you know his name?
On the other, compare Kimmel and Fallon: who is more likely to have a lasting impact? In this case, it’s a fair fight, as they are contemporaries. Carson and Colbert aren’t competitors.
In 1991, when Johnny Carson already had become “timeless,” he posed a question to David Letterman, revealing the younger comic’s own doubts about the future:
Watch the full clip and you’ll see Carson asking Letterman how he feels about NBC choosing Jay Leno to take over “The Tonight Show” instead of Letterman. The conversation is noteworthy because we now know that Carson favored Letterman.
Leno got “The Tonight Show” and Letterman lost out. But who actually won? It’s Letterman who is considered a legend, while Leno is thought of as a bland crybaby.
Will Stephen Colbert be a disapointment?
I’m already getting myself ready for disappointment with Colbert’s debut. I’ve read so many articles, all of them interesting, all of them talking about what a smart, talented host might do. And all of them speaking of Colbert as if he’s a religious figure.
Frankly, I found Colbert’s summertime teaser videos a little childish and unfunny. On CBS, I hope he continues to gives us content like this:
That interview with Stephen Sondheim is an intersection of Colbert’s knowledge, singing ability and goofiness.
Will Colbert be the next Johnny Carson?
“Does Colbert have an outside shot at being a respected name in [the] tradition [of Johnny Carson]?” Wally asks.
What tradition? Young Letterman had no chance to be respected in the Jack Paar tradition, but he ended up redefining the tradition.
Colbert will have to do his own redefining.
The traditions of the live audience, band, sidekick, desk, opening monologue, political commentary, offering snarky comments about your employer and featuring young actresses tempting the censors with their outfits — those traditions will continue.
What will Colbert do to layer something new, different and exciting on top of all that? I hope it involves at least a little Stephen Sondheim.