When Stephen Colbert debuted on The Late Show in early September, he did something rather extraordinary for late-night: he played nice with his rivals. After taking a seat at his new desk, Colbert showed off his new mega-screens, flipping from station to station until he landed on Jimmy Fallon hosting The Tonight Show. Colbert “interrupted” him, the two exchanged pleasantries and that was that. Right from the get-go they showed viewers how different things would be—how different they would be—from what had come before.
Whether on The Tonight Show, The Late Show or even Jimmy Kimmel Live!, things have never seemed friendlier in the late-night arena, so much so that TV critics have already begun decreeing the end of the late-night TV war.
Colbert himself discussed how “boring” a late-night war would be when he appeared on the most recent season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Host Jerry Seinfeld naturally asked if any sort of feud would arise; Colbert explained how once CBS made the announcement he and Fallon got drinks and spent the night laughing and telling stories. One can hardly imagine David Letterman and Jay Leno exchanging such pleasantries.
But does that air of camaraderie work for a format that has largely been a contest not just for ratings—both in the coveted 18-34 demographic and the most watched categories—but also for supremacy as the more respected host? (Letterman especially seemed to take a certain pride in writing and producing content that didn’t pander to the masses like many accused Leno of doing, according to Bill Carter in The War for Late Night.)
This peace doesn’t just come down to the fact that there’s no actual reason—besides press and ratings—for Kimmel, Colbert and Fallon to be anything other than cordial to one another. The late-night animosity of old was the product of different men with different mindsets in different situations. The new hosts aren’t Carson, Leno or Letterman, and that’s shifted the rivalry from heated to friendly.
Fallon and Colbert don’t share the dramatic history of backstabbing that long colored the programs they now host. The “war” may have reached de facto status when Leno and Letterman helmed their posts, but it didn’t start there. Instead, it was the “king of late night” Johnny Carson who drew first blood. Joan Rivers was a long-time guest and eventually his regular guest host, but when Fox offered her The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers in 1986, Carson completely cut her off over her new program directly competing with his late-night monopoly. She had appeared regularly on The Tonight Show for 20 years, but after Carson blacklisted her was never on again until Jimmy Fallon took over in 2014.
The Tonight Show is an institution, and it ruled the airwaves with almost no serious challengers for decades. Thanks to the importance Carson built up around the show during his tenure, it was the one comedians aspired to host because its name carried cultural weight and power. When Carson retired in 1992, The Tonight Show was basically the only viable late-night game at the prime slot of 11:35 PM. That only fed the heated atmosphere between Leno and Letterman, who each knew what it would mean to host the show. Later Conan O’Brien, too, fell under The Tonight Show’s spell, turning down offers from other networks in hopes of eventually succeeding Leno. Instead, he waited it out for years before inheriting The Tonight Show, only to get the bum’s rush from NBC when the transition didn’t go well.
While it is still an institution, the show’s cachet has since diminished thanks to the creation and success of other late-night shows. With the addition of The Arsenio Hall Show in 1989, Letterman’s Late Show in 1993 and more recent options like Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Chelsea Lately and Conan, the show isn’t worth fighting over when there are other avenues—and brands—to create.
More than the fact that Fallon and Colbert don’t have a contentious history with each other, their backgrounds mark a significant difference. Fallon, with SNL, and Colbert, with Second City, were trained in sketch comedy and the style’s improvisational and giving nature. That resulting friendless is manifest onscreen, and comes about because of each one’s fluid, quick-thinking nature. These are not acidic stand-ups or comedy writers given their chance in the limelight; they are two comedians who, through, a range of different projects, have honed their ability to make merry. Friendliness and playfulness are their stocks in trade.
As Colbert sheds his sarcastic news pundit character and exposes more of his true personality to viewers, his friendly demeanor contrasts Letterman’s ironic nature. It’s not as though wry observations and dry humor have completely gone out the window, but Colbert clearly approaches the job differently, and he should in order to put his stamp on it.
Since debuting on September 8, Colbert’s physical exuberance contributes to the late-night landscape’s newer, friendlier mood. He takes the stage in leaps and bounds—sometimes interrupting his monologue by dancing, shimmying or shaking to bandleader Jon Batiste’s rhythms. Letterman did bolt back and forth upstage during the intro, but Colbert’s energy seems strikingly different. His excitement signifies a high-spirited demeanor in a time slot that has shifted remarkably since the institutions of Letterman and Leno left their desks. He’s having fun.
It’s not as though Colbert can’t be serious. In fact, the guests he’s hosted over the course of his first month—presidential candidates, Supreme Court Justices, politicians, CEOs and more—balance out the celebrities who often fill the first guest slot. Colbert, then, hasn’t completely shed what made The Colbert Report work. As fun and friendly as his version of The Late Show seems, Colbert is clearly interested in making sure it’s not entirely fluff.
Fallon, too, has a playfulness about him, one he developed from his years on SNL’s Weekend Update and NBC’s Late Night. In his popular celebrity games he’s found a way around the tried-and-true desk interview, which can often be an awkward, posed exchange. Fallon still conducts such interviews, but when given the chance to play he will. Whether it’s traditional games like Pictionary or made-up games like Face Balls, Fallon integrates hilarious icebreakers that more often than not provide the show with a friendly party atmosphere.
While friendly may take some getting used to when it comes to late-night TV, it would be odd if Colbert and Fallon were otherwise. The “war” to win viewers and to have viewers select and stay with one particular side no longer seems like a given facet of late-night TV. Nobody has Carson’s virtual monopoly to protect. Leno and Letterman’s friendship soured over who got to inherit that monopoly, and Letterman successfully launching his own competing show helped to end The Tonight Show’s dominance. That battle created an oppositional undercurrent wherein viewers identified either with either Leno or Letterman, and that choice spoke volumes about each individual’s personality, tastes and more. It almost became a litmus test for your belief system. Viewers will surely have their favorites, but flipping from Colbert to Fallon or Fallon to Kimmel doesn’t contain the same sense of betrayal it would have with Leno and Letterman. And at this point, if you’re watching these shows, it’s probably not even at 11:35 PM but on your computer or phone the next morning.
Network heads will certainly be watching the ratings, and as the audience for late-night talk shows fragments or dwindles perhaps the hosts will be forced to change tactics. And none of them are waving white flags: their goal is to still entertain as many people as possible. Still, one of the most contentious corners in pop culture has finally calmed down, and it makes the years of TV turmoil feel increasingly silly. Late-night’s friendly now, and it’s a breath of fresh air.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance writer specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.