How Stephen Colbert got his groove back: The late-night host has Trump to thank for a ratings surge

The Colbert reign begins.
The Colbert reign begins.
Image: CBS/YouTube screenshot
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Donald Trump may have lost big league to Barack Obama in inauguration TV ratings, but the viewership-obsessed US president will be interested to know that he’s generating huge TV ratings—just not for himself. Since his inauguration, Trump has been a major boon for late-night comedy.

The NBC variety sketch show Saturday Night Live is enjoying a ratings surge, and Stephen Colbert, host of CBS’s The Late Show, has become the most-watched late-night TV host in the United States. Both can thank Trump for that.

Colbert is beating rival Jimmy Fallon in total viewers for the first time since he took over for David Letterman in 2015. While Fallon (host of NBC’s The Tonight Show) generally avoids a political slant, Colbert has capitalized on the barrage of headlines coming out of Trump’s scandal-ridden first month in office.

The result is a host who’s finally found his late-night groove, delivering reliably funny monologues packed with sharp political commentary.

Colbert’s last two monologues directly attacked the president and his advisors. On Monday, Colbert blatantly called Trump “corrupt” and senior policy advisor Stephen Miller “a liar”—language rarely used on the late-night comedy stage. And yesterday, he riffed on the news surrounding Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who resigned his post after misleading the administration about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

“It’s funny ’cause it’s treason,” Colbert said.

The politically-charged approach to comedy is light years from Fallon’s late-night style. The NBC host, who notoriously tousled Trump’s hair during the election, is more ambivalent toward politics, apparently eager not to alienate any viewers. Conventional wisdom says that Fallon’s approach is better for ratings—and, indeed, he has regularly bested Colbert in the ratings department for the better part of two-and-a-half years—but Colbert’s strategy now seems better suited to handle the Trump presidency.

Colbert’s Late Show struggled out of the gate as the comedian failed to come up with anything as original or as captivating as the “Stephen Colbert” conservative-talk-show-host character he embodied on the Comedy Central series The Colbert Report (whom he left behind after moving from cable to network TV). He’s had his moments on CBS—most of them related to politics—but his Late Show never really caught on with viewers.

Until now, that is. The same willingness to discuss politics that may have turned off some late-night TV watchers is now helping Colbert to bring more in. And that wouldn’t be possible without Trump and an administration that is constantly mired in controversy.

Colbert’s reign may not last (Fallon still averages more viewers for the entire season), but he’s very much got his groove back. As long as Trump is president, Colbert will have no shortage of material to spin into comedy for his growing audience.