Stephen Colbert and other talk show hosts are enjoying a lift from the wave of viewers turning to comedy to cope with their angst
While TV news pundits were still analyzing President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress, Stephen Colbert was already milking it for late-night laughs.
“The female members of the House Democratic caucus all wore white in honor of women’s suffrage — while the Republicans wore white in honor of who elected them,” the “Late Show” host told a crowd of 400 cheering fans during a live broadcast at the Ed Sullivan Theater.
After languishing in second place since he succeeded David Letterman on the CBS franchise in September 2015, Colbert now hosts the most-watched show in late-night TV since the week of Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. He has risen to 3 million viewers a night — enough to surpass longtime ratings leader “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” on NBC for four consecutive weeks.
Colbert and other late-night talk-show hosts are being lifted by the wave of TV viewers turning to late-night comedy to cope with their angst over the new administration. Overtly political hosts who have designated Trump as the piñata-in-chief — HBO’s Bill Maher and John Oliver and TBS’ Samantha Bee — are also experiencing significant ratings increases during a post-election period when their audience levels typically ebb. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” is on track to have its best quarterly ratings since Trevor Noah took over for Jon Stewart as host.
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The rolling disclosures of Trump campaign contacts with Russian ambassadors, a succession of executive orders, an aggressive deportation policy for undocumented immigrants and ugly confrontations with the press provide plenty of material for comics who find themselves serving an uneasy audience.
“Humor is relieving the tension in a much more potent way now,” said Scott Carter, executive producer and head writer for HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” “They have a lot of anxiety that we’re addressing. It’s the unpredictability of both the president and the people who surround him who often seem to contradict him.”
The sentiment was shared by some of the Colbert fans who stayed up for the rare live performance (“Late Show” typically tapes at 5:30 p.m. Eastern) at the Ed Sullivan Theater, just a few blocks north of Times Square.
For audience member Daniel Dieter, a 27-year-old software company employee in New York City, Colbert’s riffs on Trump and the divided nation he is presiding over have become a nightly ritual.
“I’m definitely watching more frequently,” Dieter said. “It’s a nice release. Comedy provides a good avenue to get to the truth of things.”
Yasmin Merchant, 22, a student at Fordham University, added: “I want to keep up with what’s going on and not get sad.”
Colbert’s executive producer Chris Licht, a former TV news executive, declined to comment for this story, preferring that the show’s comedy speak for itself.
But the consensus in the TV industry is that the unexpected shift in the political landscape plays to the Colbert’s strength as a satirist and is giving him a distinctive voice that many believed had gone missing since he took over “The Late Show.”
In 2017, Colbert’s audience is up 9 percent while NBC’s Fallon is off 18 percent from a year ago, according to Nielsen. It was the first time that CBS has topped NBC in late night in February since 2010.
“It’s taken him 17 months to get to this,” said Jason Maltby, managing director, director of national broadcast TV for media buying firm Mindshare. “He had a rough start in the switch from Comedy Central to CBS. They struggled with what the tenor of the show was and who he was, versus the Colbert from Comedy Central.”
Maltby notes that NBC’s Fallon still has the ratings lead among viewers in the 18 to 49 age group, the main target for advertisers buying commercials on late-night shows, although that number has slipped as well. The “Tonight” ratings falloff has hurt the audience lead-in to “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” which has also declined despite having more pointed political humor.
The rise in viewers for Colbert will increase advertiser demand for his show, Maltby added, as large audiences for live TV are harder to reach given the growing number of video choices. The average price of a 30-second spot on “The Late Show” went for $21,129 in January, up 6.6 percent from the previous month, according to Standard Media Index.
NBC is well aware of what the public’s fascination with Trump can do to viewing habits. “Saturday Night Live” — which has stepped up its political content this season with Alec Baldwin’s instantly iconic Trump impersonation and stinging lampoons of his staff by Melissa McCarthy and Kate McKinnon — is having its most-watched season in 24 years.