The irony about David Letterman is that — on the surface, at least — he was the most prickly, emotionally reserved late-night host in television. He was a private guy; he didn’t go to parties; he didn’t give many interviews; and you never saw him palling around with other celebrities outside of the Ed Sullivan Theater.
But the wrinkle there was that, though he was the most closed off of all the hosts, we seemed to know Dave more intimately than all the others. He may have shattered the late-night talk show mold during his years on NBC, but it was on CBS when we really got to know the guy through the turmoil with being passed over on The Tonight Show, through his heart surgery, to his first post-9/11 episode, and even through his confession to carrying on affairs with women on his staff. He may have been a private man on the outside, but on his show, he talked about his failings, his life, and his family, frequently beaming about his son, Harry. Many of those were memorable moments that were never likely going to make it onto YouTube the next morning.
There was an intimacy there that was rare in late night, and one that many in this generation of hosts haven’t been able to duplicate. Granted, we learned a lot about Conan through his ordeal with The Tonight Show (especially if you’ve seen the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop), but you don’t see that much of it in Fallon. He’s an adorable puppy dog with a lapping tongue that won’t quit, and I honestly have nothing against Fallon, but when your show is about who can churn out the most viral videos the next morning, you lose that sense of intimacy. I feel absolutely no personal connection to Fallon, and only in his love of Letterman have I began to develop an inkling of that for Kimmel (though, Kimmel is also someone I like a lot).
But that’s what makes Stephen Colbert such an ideal replacement for Dave. More than any other late-night host, Colbert has forged a real relationship with his audience. Again, there’s some irony to that because for the last decade, we mostly only know Colbert through his character. But in trying to parse out the true man behind the facade, we’ve developed a stronger, more lasting relationship with Colbert. He’s a guy who means something to us outside of what he produces on a nightly basis.
Colbert has a personality. He loves Lord of the Rings. He cares deeply about his family (in fact, his entire family had adorable cameos in the first Hobbit movie). We know his politics. We know his faith. Hell, the man shaved his head to show solidarity for the troops in Iraq, and it wasn’t even a hollow ratings ploy. It was an honest, authentic, and touching moment.
And then there was his tribute to his mom, Lorna Colbert, after she passed away:
In three and a half minutes, I got to know Colbert — and care more deeply about him — than I have with Jimmy Fallon in all his years at SNL, Late Night and The Tonight Show combined. Colbert’s tribute to his mother was one of the most honest, sincere moments in all of late-night history, and if that’s all I ever knew about him, I’d still feel immense respect for the man, and I’d feel like I knew th eman.
However, I have no illusions about who will ultimately win the ratings battle between Fallon and Colbert. Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show is built with ratings in mind. It’s a powerhouse, and audiences will probably never tire of seeing celebrities lip sync or play charades. Like Leno, Fallon will probably remain on top for the next two decades, but like Letterman, it’s Colbert with whom we will connect, with whom we will feel passionate, and who we will remember when the dust has settled on the next chapter of late night. Jimmy Fallon’s legacy will be measured in YouTube view counts. Stephen Colbert’s legacy will be felt in our hearts.
And for the record, my all-time favorite Fallon moment actually involved Stephen Colbert: