For those late-night observers who’ve spent the week watching Trevor Noah’s first week on “The Daily Show” with a kind of Talmudic focus, the arrival of John Oliver on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” registered as a kind of sensory overload.
So far the most-quoted lines from the host convergence was Oliver’s assertion that he simply doesn’t care about Donald Trump. “I couldn’t give less of sh*t,” Oliver said of the truculent candidate. “It’s the 2016 election. And it’s 2015 right now. So I don’t care until we’re in the same year as the thing that I’m supposed to care about.” (For what it’s worth, because the term was bleeped, some think he may’ve said that he did not give a “f*ck.”)
It’s also intriguing to note that neither the Birmingham-born, Cambridge-educated Oliver nor Johannesburg native Noah, are American citizens: So two of the most influential commentators on American politics cannot vote in U.S. elections. In any case, Oliver talked about the importance of political issues not tied up in the election, which is not a bad niche given how pointless a lot of the horserace coverage has been.
Instead of a brand-new “Daily Show” host trying to find his feet, here were two veterans of the Jon Stewart-era show who have grown into their new roles and not only know who they are, but can riff with each other in a way that’s both entertaining and smart. It almost makes you want a buddy movie.
It’s also hard not to notice that before and after Oliver showed up last night, Wednesday’s installment of “The Late Show” was straining a little. The bit on virtual reality, in which Colbert pretended to experience a GOP debate through a new headset, demonstrated his gift for physical comedy. But it still went on too long. That goes double for “Big Questions With Even Bigger Stars,” in which Colbert and Tom Hanks sprawled on a blanket outdoors and pondered the mysteries of the universe. (It started strong, as Colbert asked: “Hey Tom, why do you think bad things happen to good people?” Hanks: “Maybe it’s because God’s really old, and his eyes are going.”) By the end, Hanks just admitted it: The skit’s goal was simply “to kill four minutes before John Oliver comes out.”
Colbert’s interview with Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel (how many times did Colbert say “billion” or “billionaire”?) only occasionally came to life. And while it was cool to see Bill Withers, the R&B musician and songwriter who’s experienced a well-deserved revival in recent years (and who turns out to be a serious Judge Judy fan), the three-way conversation with Ed Sheeran didn’t really go anywhere, either.
But the few minutes with Oliver, who bounced onto stage and sat down with a fake bow, made up for the rough or blank spots elsewhere. After the low-key, handsome-guy boastfulness of Noah, Oliver’s self-deprecation was striking: He picked up Colbert’s praise – that his show had really caught fire -- by describing himself as “a pretty small blaze… the kind of heat that could partially toast a marshmallow.” Even the jokey sparring between the two -- with Oliver asserting that his single half-hour of television as “less is more… like heroin” – was based on undercutting his own achievement.
How, Colbert asked, did Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” come up with topics heavy enough to be worth pursuing for 18 minutes but engaging enough to matter to an audience? Oliver admitted it was never easy: “We’re on the precipice of disaster every week.”
Oliver and Colbert have the practiced improviser’s combination of spontaneity, empathy, and perfect timing. It’s probably not fair to Noah to compared him to these two, or their absolute mastery when they’re together: Noah is young and still adjusting to a hosting role very different from his previous efforts as a stand-up comedian.
There was a telling moment near the end, though, where Oliver and Colbert were praising Noah’s maiden voyage. “He’s taking on the impossible,” Oliver said. “You can’t replace the irreplaceable.” Colbert came back with, “I wouldn’t know what that’s like.”
This was, of course, supposed to be a knowing reference to Colbert stepping into David Letterman’s shoes. But as titanic and influential a figure as Letterman proved to be, it’s difficult to imagine a lot of people pining for him the way Jon Stewart fans are still watching “The Daily Show” and waiting for the old bitter spark. Whether they’ll get it – or something satisfying in its own way -- is impossible to say at this point. But it became very clear last night that whatever else is going on in the world of late night these days, two of Stewart’s old alums are playing at the very top of their game.