Millennials at the Heart of the Colbert Nation

Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report

The following that Stephen Colbert built among Millennials on ‘The Colbert Report’ should follow him to his new gig

We were well into the wee hours of a typical weeknight spent, let’s say, studying, when the impulse struck. Someone had to go down to the deli on the ground floor of our dormitory tower and bring back a snack for the group. And they had to go right now. During the commercials.

Two of us, actually, were dispatched on this most vital mission. And the snack we brought back was the first thing we spotted on the shelves: a box of strawberry frosted Pop Tarts.

Only there was one problem.

No, not a quantity issue. There were plenty Pop Tarts to go around. They came six in a box (as I imagine they still do), three packets of two Tarts, which was exactly the right amount for the half-dozen of us hanging out in front of the only television on our side of the 4th floor.

And it wasn’t a matter of quality. Not even the slightest complaint was offered up as we tore open the packets and began distributing the strawberry frosted Pop Tarts. Until we got to the last packet.

We peeled apart the foil and there, behind the fifth strawberry frosted Pop Tart, was a chocolate fudge Pop Tart. (Cue suspenseful music: dum dum dummmmm).

This was a big deal. Not because people don’t like chocolate fudge Pop Tarts (I haven’t met any, at least). But this was the mid-1980s, and the widely covered unsolved murder involving a bottle of aspirin that had been tampered with was still fresh in our memories.

Had this been an honest mistake, a faux pastry faux pas? Or were we the unwitting near victims of some disgruntled employee on the Pop Tart assembly line, whose ominous message was, “I could have put cyanide in your Pop Tarts. Instead, I swapped in a chocolate fudge. Consider yourself warned.” We were intrigued.

Oh, we ate the Pop Tart. But we also knew that we had to tell someone what had happened. We had to blow the whistle on this potential Kellogg’s conspiracy.  So, we did what every other group of college freshmen likely would have done: we took our case to the highest of authorities.

We wrote a letter to David Letterman.

This was 1985, and Dave was the voice of our generation (still years away from being branded “Generation X”), a non-traditional, unconventional, somewhat subversive presence on late-night TV who spoke to us and for us. Remember, Late Night came on the air at 12:30 a.m. Eastern, after Johnny Carson had signed off and our parents had gone to bed. Everyone else was asleep. We had Dave to ourselves.

Thirty years later, it remains one of my life’s great regrets that our letter was never plucked from the sacks of what Letterman called his “voluminous viewer mail.” Our cry for help never made the cut for his popular weekly segment, and the chocolate fudge Pop Tart mystery, like the case of the poison pill before it, remains unsolved to this day.

I thought of that unanswered letter on Tuesday night as I was watching the return of Stephen Colbert, who assumed the helm of The Late Show after the retirement of Letterman. I had long since stopped watching Letterman, partly because the voice of our generation had become increasingly curmudgeonly over the years. But really I’d stopped watching because I’d moved on to someone else at 11:30.

Stephen Colbert.

Turns out, Colbert, too, was part of Generation Dave. He acknowledged as much on Tuesday when, during his first segment behind his new desk (carved, he said, from a single block of desk), he revealed that he started college the same year Letterman started Late Night. Turns out that while I was in my dorm watching Dave with my college friends, Colbert was doing the same in his with his.

Now, one of us is up there, behind the desk (and beneath a veritable digital Sistine Col-chapel,  projected onto the ceiling of the Ed Sullivan Theater), speaking to what I imagine was a series of dorm-bound audiences from Tacoma to Tampa.

Dave always got us, and now Stephen gets today’s college generation. Millennials are the lifeblood of Colbert Nation and have been since The Report sprang forth from the loins of the Daily Show (fittingly, it was a grizzled, grey-bearded Jon Stewart who ushered in the new era of The Late Show with an emphatic “Play ball!” that ended the show’s opening bit).

And it’s not just because they’re the only ones awake at the hour Colbert (and Stewart) were talking to them. It’s because these hosts were to talking to them. Last December, a study by Pew Research showed that 22% of males between the ages of 18-29 got their news from The Colbert Report. Even more (28%) said that they trusted Colbert to deliver their news.

Two years earlier, Pew found that more 18-29-year-olds (43%) got their news from The Colbert Report than anywhere else. Only 9% got theirs from the network nightly news. Only 6% watched Sean Hannity.

More than 40% of Colbert’s Comedy Central audience was under 30, even though less than one-quarter of the American population is between 18 and 29. Millenials flocked to Colbert for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that he was there whenever they needed him. He always has been savvy about working what he calls the Interwebs, serving up highlights from his shows on YouTube and through social media like someone dishing out free ice cream samples outside a sundae shop. Colbert knew how to get Millennials in the door and keep them there. His ascension to Letterman’s throne can be attributed in no small part to that rapport.

Even as he was preparing to launch The Late Show, Colbert remained connected to the most loyal segment of his fan base, producing regular video segments to whet their appetites for The Big Move. In one particularly topical segment over the summer, Colbert hosted rock star astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson for a conversation about Pluto in his cubicle. (We learned during their discussion what Tyson would not do for a Klondike bar: recognize Pluto as a planet).

Will Colbert lose his Tweet cred with Millennials now that he’s gone network? Doubtful. More people across all demographics likely will tune in; some will even log on, whenever their college student is home for break and can help them do so.

But as we witnessed in the debut, though Colbert has shed the skin of his former right-wing narcissist fact-averse blowhard character, the all-in goofiness at his core remains. Just as it was once hard to imagine anyone before Letterman donning a suit of Alka Seltzer tablets and having himself lowered into a dunk tank of water, it is difficult to imagine anyone enjoying himself more than Colbert watching Donald Trump sound-bytes from summer on the stump while launching himself into a segment-ending Oreos-induced coma.

Colbert said it himself on Tuesday. He is not Letterman, nor is he trying to be. But to Millennials, he is their parents’ Letterman. I’m guessing they’ll keep watching (and clicking and sharing), much to the delight of Les Moonves and Millennial marketing managers everywhere.

I, too, will be watching. But not with Pop Tarts this time. Suddenly, I’m in the mood for a sleeve of Oreos.

David Seigerman’s latest book, Take Your Eye Off The Ball 2.0 (Triumph Books)
will be released this fall. Follow him at @dseigs18.

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