How Stephen Colbert’s ‘Late Show’ Suddenly Vaulted to No. 1 in Late Night

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Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” has found itself in a weird place lately — first.

The late-night talker regularly ran runner-up in TV ratings to Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” the 11:35 p.m. NBC staple that CBS’ version recently leap-frogged in households and among total viewers.

If you read that sentence and thought, “Wait, what? Really?” — we can’t blame you. That’s because mere weeks ago, Colbert’s talker was struggling so much that various publications not named TheWrap wondered aloud about the possibility of “Late Late Show” host James Corden being handed the earlier hour. ‘Twas a big premature, perhaps.

So, how did the “Colbert Report” alum right his new ship? Well, the host had a lot of help from an unlikely office, and the very thing that formerly plagued Colbert’s “Late Show” is pretty much what saved it.

Early criticism about the post-Letterman era was that the variety show dove too deeply into politics, as opposed to devolving into silly games with celebrities a la Fallon, or creating shareable viral moments like Colbert’s other chief competition, Jimmy Kimmel. Here’s the thing though: Nielsen doesn’t measure YouTube clicks. Sorry, Jimmys.

Still, the Fallon one had Colbert’s number — that is, until Donald Trump became President of the United States of America.

Colbert started slaying Leslie Moonvies’ older-skewing audience linearly this summer with skits featuring Laura Benanti as Melania Trump. Cartoon Trump (pictured above) began making regular appearances as well, and Colbert made further headway with live episodes timed to the election. More recently, the “Strangers With Candy” graduate has seemingly used every cold open and monologue available to skewer America’s top executive — and Nielsen panelists have been responding favorably.

Chief competition Fallon’s brand of fun took a bit of a hit when he had Trump on as a guest pre-election, choosing to tussle the man’s hair instead of ruffle his feathers. Hollywood — and viewers — hoped for something more from the day part’s king of joy.

Meanwhile, the openly liberal Colbert — who spent years on Comedy Central playing an over-the-top conservative character — stayed on message. He turtled to Fallon’s hare, and the perfect political climate to pass his foe came gift-wrapped.

Here’s how the Trump administration has paid off for Colbert: Inauguration week, he lost the eyeball race by just 8,000 total viewers. The following week featured reruns. Since then, Colbert hasn’t lost, and he’s projected to win this current week.

It’s not just the 45th president’s existence, though, that has viewers flocking to CBS. The first quarter of the year, when NFL football is gone, is traditionally one of NBC’s weaker stretches in primetime. Fallon’s network is also currently between cycles of “The Voice,” and there are a few extra encores out of the broadcaster’s procedurals. That means primetime is down, which carries into late-night.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Fallon’s struggles haven’t provided a great lead-in for Seth Meyers, who has also been lauded for his handling of this White House. The difference between Colbert and Meyers was well summed-up by Slate, which praised the former for staying light-hearted over the insanity while the latter has taken things a bit more seriously. The other big difference being their time slots.

Of course, it takes a village to win a ratings war (and potentially take down a president). Colbert’s bookers have also stepped up their guests’ game lately, exploiting the beloved comic’s family tree. Former Comedy Central colleagues Jon Stewart and John Oliver have made some strong appearances on “The Late Show” over these last few weeks, which has kept the fluorescents on at CBS.

Clearly, Fallon is feeling the heat and has stepped up his Trump mockery: Check out his take on Thursday’s wacky press conference here. Keep an eye on the balance going forward that Fallon strikes between such social commentary and Roomba beer pong.

For now, reigning late-night king Fallon’s got the season, but Colbert has momentum. Readers can cast a vote for the day part’s future monarch with their viewership weeknights at 11:35 p.m.

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