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Stephen Colbert treats the Internet like an adult

Guests like Elon Musk and Tim Cook are bringing Silicon Valley to a whole new audience.


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Newly anointed Late Show host Stephen Colbert has turned more than a few heads with his guest list. Since taking over David Letterman’s chair last month, the comedian has shaken up the typical late night roster of actors and pop stars by inviting public figures not used to drawing such attention—like former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. 

While politicians are no strangers to late night TV—former Colbert compatriot Jon Stewart had each of those men on during his tenure of The Daily Show—Colbert is embracing serious discussion in ways less similar to Letterman and more similar to Charlie Rose.

Perhaps most surprising, however, are the guests Colbert has hosted who are also outside the realm of politics and governance. Interviews with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and Apple CEO Tim Cook have brought the culture of Silicon Valley to mainstream television in a way it hasn’t before—outside of the occasional evening news broadcast. This also represents an interesting and novel attempt by Colbert and CBS to lure in younger viewers. While Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have repackaged their format for viral-ready YouTube bits and BuzzFeed headlines, Stephen Colbert is taking tech seriously.

This is exactly what a Late Show audience needs. While Colbert had one of the youngest audiences in television on The Colbert Report, he’s inherited one of the oldest. CBS has an average age of 57, the highest among the four major broadcast networks, and David Letterman left The Late Show with an average viewer age of 54. That’s a demographic that has likely never used Uber, AirBnB, or Snapchat, but that didn’t stop Colbert from having on all three of their respective chief executives on his show.

What this does is two things. First, Colbert gets to play the surrogate for his older audience, often asking the most basic questions about a new technology just to introduce his viewers to the concept. The best example of this was his takedown of CNN’s Virtual Reality option for the Republican debate—in which Colbert ends up watching the event on TV at a bar in his Second Life-esque environment. 

But he’s no luddite—watch him bask in the awe of game designer Sean Murray’s expansive and miraculous No Man’s Sky.

During his Tim Cook interview, Colbert both marvels and mocks the new features of the iPhone 6S—all while Cook walks him through it. You get that sense that he’s not just doing so for the sake of comedy but for your parents. This is a good interview tactic for more reasons than breaking down the complexity of new technologies for digital immigrants. It also strips away the basic assumptions under which many tech companies function—forcing their executives and founders to be held accountable to their own best practices.

Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel sputtered over Colbert’s question of how assured users should be that their messages are truly gone. Uber’s Kalanick faced a similar grilling on the working conditions of Uber drivers, as well as his desire to replace those same drivers with automated cars. And  just this week, AirBnB CEO Brian Chesky faced questions from Colbert over the questionable safety record of the app, whether “disruption” is really a good thing, and to what extent AirBnB is a beneficiary of the Great Recession.

But of course, this is still late night TV. None of these men faced the full scrutiny to which actual journalists might have subjected them, and the visits were clearly all in good fun. 

However, Colbert has made several moves to prove that the tenor of his show would match the seriousness of the conversations, scolding his audience for booing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and editing out a protester’s outburst during his interview with Kalanick. But by merely introducing the concept of the sharing economy to older audiences, Colbert is forcing into the light conversations typically reserved for Marc Andreessen’s tweetstorms and the comments sections of Re/Code. 

These are public debates that need to happen across all age spectrums, not just the older viewers of late night television. A 2014 Pew study which tested the “Web IQ” of various age groups found little difference between millennials and Gen-Xers on core facts about our digital lives. Fifty-four percent of both 18-29 year olds and 50-64 year olds said privacy policies are meant to ensure the data you give a website like Facebook will remain private and secure (they often say the opposite). Another Pew study from this past May found Americans care very deeply about securing their data online but feel powerless to do so.

It… strips away the basic assumptions under which many tech companies function—forcing their executives and founders to be held accountable to their own best practices.

Such details are missed by late night competitors Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. The closest either has come to a serious discussion about technology and how it affects our lives is a recent Kimmel sketch wherein multiple people freely give their online passwords to the show. Otherwise, Kimmel is happy to interview starlets and make the same jokes about Guillermo, his late night sidekick, over and over.

Fallon is a more interesting case, and one whose striking contrast shows the value of Colbert’s guest list. Younger than Colbert by a decade—yet still no millennial at 41—Fallon has done more than any other television personality to bring his show into the digital age. 

After taking over for Jay Leno, Fallon has succeeded at creating short clips that spread widely online, both through social media and news sites (like this one). He integrates Twitter into The Tonight Show with ease, makes jokes about Snapchat without a whiff of irony, and otherwise implements the infrastructure of the social Web as good as any Kardashian.

Fallon’s show lives online—and relates to people who do as well—but Colbert is clearly aiming higher. Rather than adopting the Internet as a tool, Colbert is obviously willing to pry open the companies that create it and see what, if anything, is inside. While he stumbled in the beginning, Colbert has matched Fallon in the ratings and even brought a younger audience to CBS. Each was specifically brought on to do just that—speak to millennials in a way that will get them to turn on their televisions. 

Colbert and Fallon have both found an ally in that quest in digital culture—but Colbert should be applauded for not merely using it but wanting to understand it.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

The Daily Dot