The list of Emmy nominations for outstanding variety talk series was bound to be a talker. It was quite possibly going to be the first time in decades a woman would get a nod. Alas, Samantha Bee didn't make the cut, but tongues will still be wagging — just for a different reason. "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" didn't get a nomination, but look who did: his big competitors, "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." Worse still for Colbert, "The Late Show's" supposed second banana, "The Late Late Show With James Corden," made the cut.
That's not a good sign for Colbert, who has struggled to find his footing as David Letterman's replacement. He was a stellar fake Fox News type on Comedy Central, but playing it straight on CBS has been more strenuous. What does this mean for him? Is it time to start counting down to the moment the network replaces Colbert with Corden?
Colbert hasn't exactly been a natural as an interviewer of young hit makers, which may be why he's more likely than the competition to bring on political figures. He can come across as awkward or uninformed when meeting someone like Demi Lovato or Casey Affleck, and he simply doesn't play the usual late night game of silly gimmicks tailor-made to go viral. For better or worse, you won't see him swapping mouths with his guests. But that's what the people apparently want. The "Late Show" ratings haven't been great; Fallon is still the late-night champ while Colbert and Kimmel jockey for second place.
In April, Chris Licht joined "The Late Show" as showrunner. He had success boosting CBS's morning show game. But has it helped? During the week that ended July 1, Colbert's number dropped among adults 18-49, allowing Jimmy Kimmel to take the second spot. And while both shows aired new episodes (except for "Kimmel" on July 1), they both lost to "The Tonight Show," which had a week of repeats.
Corden seems like more of a natural in the late-night landscape if only because he doubles down on the kind of inane shenanigans that are a hit with Facebookers. This is the man behind Carpool Karaoke, which is either delightful or infuriating, depending on your tastes. Corden has his detractors, and he is just as bad at interviewing as all the other late night hosts (like Fallon, he's an attention-grabber with a chronic need to interrupt), but he knows how to play the game to win. He's nutty and goofy and if he takes himself too seriously, he at least hides it well.
Plus, CBS loves him. Why else would they invite the former stage actor to host the Tonys?
Colbert by comparison comes across as staid. It's telling that one of the most viral segments of his show was actually filmed during a commercial break, when he was asked how he knew his wife was the one. "Oh man, how long do we have?" Colbert asked, then launched into a meet-cute worthy of a romantic comedy. Even then, though, he reminded us that he's not your typical mindless late-night host by name checking North Carolina poet Chuck Sullivan and the Nausicaa chapter of the Odyssey (Robert Fagles's translation, to be exact).
It's not that Colbert isn't entertaining. It's just that he's not entertaining within the confines of the late-night paradigm. He seems to know it, too. And if he didn't, the Emmy nominations were confirmation.